Data, Dopamine, Patterns and Experience
We live in an age of extraordinary access. Where knowledge floods though myriad portals to create a seemingly infinite pool of possibility. But while it’s almost a cliché to dismiss our contemporary reality as intrinsically shallow and hark back to the simplicities of a golden age, it is important to stop and consider the implications of how our templates of reality actually work. Are they designed to increase our efficiency as mechanical beings or to wring every last fragment of experience out of our lives?
Humans create systems. The history of our development is punctuated by attempts to manage our environment and the construction of logical matrices to understand and harness the world around us. But while those systems have proved spectacularly effective on many levels, they have also served to divorce us from the fundamental rhythms of life.
Take three core examples – alphabets, time and money. Alphabets by their very nature are a form of coding – a semantic formula that we use in an abstract cognitive space to filter all our expressions and understandings of reality though. With organic associations like onomatopoeia subsumed in the cold codes of the alphabet, we learned to represent every aspect of the physical and psychological world by arranging symbols that had no underlying relationship with the essence of ‘things’.
Time – a uniquely human construct – not only developed a linear narrative to our existence that allowed us to make sense our lives in the three dimensions of past, present and future, but commodified them into mathematical, economic units.
And money – that broadened the scope and possibilities of the barter economy in stunning fashion but rapidly became a commodity in its own right rather than a means of exchange.
These systems allowed us to fortify our ivory towers of progress and add abstract layers to the natural world. Western culture in particular took this baton and accelerated away into precision measurement and financial complexity yoked to an ever decreasing symbiosis with nature. That self generated algorithm went freebase during the industrial revolution, and the twentieth century saw this evolutionary crack smoking double up with a massive injection of technological steroids. And so here we are – masters of coding and pattern recognition. But masters of reality?
Human consciousness – on a surface ‘ego’ level at least has become astonishingly adept at manipulating reality through the prism of abstract codes. We can process vast quantities of data on a minute by minute basis. But just how much does processed data translate to raw experience? Does our computational power give any more depth or beauty to our experience or does it actually diminish it?
On an average day online we will see thousands of profoundly special pieces of art, knowledge, music, photography, creativity and socio-political insight. But as someone’s latest painting or a band’s latest track snakes its way down our news feed, we see it, we appreciate it – we instantly pick out quality and beauty, register it , file it, process it and move on. But if twenty years ago we might contemplate a painting and immerse ourselves in it – now our brain instantly edits it into a highlights reel. Are we becoming more shallow or are we are allowing our evolution to be dictated by a model of ‘progress’ that views such developments as a desirable uptick in ‘efficiency’?
None of this is leading towards a Luddite indictment of technology. Nothing is that simple. Technology is a wonderfully kaleidoscopic thread in the fabric of reality and against all the odds has allowed systems, like the internet, to buck the trends of centralization and corporatism that the mercantile vision of the world have brought us to. Open source dynamics drove a new democratisation of power and voice in the virtual arena as control structures were subverted, yet saturation, surveillance and exponentially diminishing attention spans are but a flipside away. A paradox in a hall of mirrors.
In the late 60’s a fascinating strand opened up in quantum physics where parallels were drawn between the cutting edge of science and the age old tenets of Eastern spirituality. As the psychedelic revolution unleashed new portraits of reality’s elusive face, scientists attempted to break free from linear ideas of progress and unite reality in a new yin/yang model where ultra modern and primordial danced in fluid union. It was never a question of whether Lao Tzu could have run a particle accelerator, but an intriguing vision of technology and ancient wisdom feeding back into one another.
Can we take the best from the breakneck digital world around us while living those windows onto wonder through an analogue headspace. Not allow our experiences to be broken down into the mathematics of binary code. Not endlessly resample reality into a compressed picture of that experience, but to soak up every last intangible drop. Can we break creativity out from its current role as something to be consumed and reassert it as a portal to the sublime? Or are we irredeemably addicted to the dopamine hits of the quickening.
If we want to cast off the mechanical strictures that Western ‘progress’ has imprisoned us within – if we want to experience life on a level that represents full spectrum engagement, should we not temper our thirst for information with a deeper, slower, more perma form of culture? Bringing the two poles of information and experience together into something that actually produces a current could be the real challenge of our volatile age. Otherwise we may well be conditioning ourselves into high functioning robots.
Evolution and human experience cannot be viewed as a linear process any more than they can be seen as purely cyclical. Perhaps the most accurate visual metaphor for how our human experience works best is the spiral – iterating outwards into new territory while turning back through archetypal truths and eternal bedrocks of wisdom – charting vivid new horizons while always orbiting our core. Ultimately, experience is all we really have on this mortal coil – it is the essence of our existence, and sacrificing that on the altar of quantity and quantification must surely be a woeful betrayal of life’s potential. Bankrupted by an embarrassment of riches.
Can we hack our way through the jungle of saturated data and coded complexities to wire the best of those worlds through natural rhythms and heightened sensitivity into a genuinely progressive hybrid? Can we hack a new circuit of consciousness?
Rabbit by Smug One
Unzipping Reality by Martin Ron
Mechanical Clock – Eric Freitas
First published LSD Magazine Issue 10 – Inception
Thanks to Douglas Rushkoff – our conversation inspired this piece