It would seem we’ve made our Digital world in our own image. “Well, duh!” you might say, wondering how it took me so long to reach that pretty obvious conclusion. And it is pretty obvious on the face of it. However, if we’ve made this Digital world in our own image, what can we learn about it and ourselves if we dig beneath the surface a bit?
Regular readers of the Underground know a steady theme is attention to what’s edited out by our Digital representations of Analog. That editing has always been cast as a conscious choice, made in a hubristic attempt to “improve” things. Turns out that editing may begin long before we summon up any conscious picture of what better looks like.
Making a Monkey Out of Percpetion
In their book, The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons recount a number of psychological experiments on attention, knowledge and logic. Turns out we don’t know or notice as much as we think we do. The opening chapter recounts a simple experiment in which subjects are asked to watch a video tape and count the number of passes between basketball players. To make it a little more challenging, some players wear white uniforms, some wear black and the subjects are only to count the passes between players in white. Pretty straight forward and most subjects deliver an accurate count of the number passes.
There is one other little detail that makes this experiment more interesting and relevant to our conversation. About half way through the video, a person in a full gorilla suit wanders through the middle of the basketball exercise. They stop in the middle of the frame, wave their hands, dance around, etc. They’re not trying to sneak in and back out without being noticed. But almost half the subjects, when asked about what they saw in the video will talk only about the number of passes. If asked outright about seeing a gorilla they will say they saw no gorilla. Many in that group, if shown the same video again, will deny that the gorilla was there the first time through.
It only gets worse from there as they recount other experiments that call into question our abilities to accurately remember significant events, draw rational conclusions about cause and effect, and in general reliably estimate our own capabilities and potential. As remedy, Chabris and Simons’ have an almost child-like faith that experimentation can clearly reveal an accurate knowledge of the world as it is. Their book’s sub-title is “And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us.”
I’m not so sure. Or at least not sure that really solves the more complex social, environmental, or personal challenges which are not reducible to simple experimentation. Last I checked we only get to live a given life one way. No winding the clock back and trying some other path.
The phenomenon of editing is not a revelation in the Digital world. It’s all about editing. But as we play God in creating that Digital reality, it’s probably worth asking if our Analog selves are more like Yahweh, the God of Ages in full control and delivering our certain prognostications in a rumbling voice of thunder. Or are we more like Epimetheus, the Greek God know for “running forward while looking behind.”
It’s an Architected Life
If popular movies are any indication of our baser intuitions, it seems we’re casting our instinctual vote for Epimetheus. There’s a trend in movies over the last decade of Digital emergence to have a role of a flawed God, more commonly called “The Architect” These “Architects” are not to be confused with the humble practitioner down the street designing MacMansions for the boobocracy, nor even the soaring spirits that have designed our finest public monuments. These “Architects” are designing whole worlds, but not worlds that will actually be built, touched, inhabited, but rather only experienced either as base neural stimulations (The Matrix series) or in dreams (Inception).
These imagined worlds, no matter the skill of the architect are always flawed, eventually falling into some kind of chaos. It is as if the designed reality lacks some stabilizing or self correcting element to prevent eventual disaster; as if the designer, the architect, by definition cannot see a big enough frame to create a self sustaining reality.
Of course, just because the movies say it don’t make it so, but this one rings true both in intuition born of experience and in experimentation with invisible gorillas.
Go find someone who has the title “Enterprise Architect.” About any self respecting medium to large IT shop will have at least one these days. We’re a sorry lot (did my time there several years ago) charged with the impossible task of articulating a comprehensive vision for robust technology in the modern organization. Actually that’s not so bad. Where the trouble comes is in actually implementing and maintaining that vision. Like the sci-fi architects writ large across the big screen we seem doomed to failure, to watch time and the newest buzz words relentlessly crumble our creations to chaos and dust.
Better than Perfect
But there is a kind of glory and honor to be had from this Sisyphean task, the restless plucking of dripping bits of order from the relentless chaos. We achieve that glory and honor not in realizing the perfection of our designs, but rather in understanding both our Digital and Analog worlds are improved by a certain humility, an acceptance that even our best designs are flawed in ways we cannot, at first, imagine. Honor comes not from our perfection, but rather from our living through, beyond and above our realized flaws.
What gorilla? Or, more ominously (unless you have the perception of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz), what is that, behind the curtain?
In nature, it's hardly necessary for any organism to have broad and comprehensive knowledge, the kind that we favor in these discussions, but only to do the right stuff in order to survive and prosper. This arrangement sufficiently animates and elaborates existence. Our “digitization” emerges in a little evolutionary nook beyond just taking care of business, so it is natural and easy not to see the gorilla, or miss much worse.
I hope that that also means that we are missing a great deal by which we could benefit radically. Of course we are, but maybe that's just as well.