Popcorn and Cat Memes and the Passing of Time

Its good to begin with a joke or a parable. I don’t like gimmicks, but I got two little stories.

This is one I heard today while listening to a website called You are Listening to Deep Thought. I  heard it as I was trying and failing to move forward on the latest draft of the book I am working on. I don’t know who the speaker was, but I enjoyed the story, so I am sorry to whomever I am appropriating this fishy tale from. It’s about two fishes swimming along in the deepest part of the ocean, and, as they swim along, they pass an older, bigger fish, who says “Hi Guys, how’s the water for you today?” The two fish pass on and then after a while stop and turn to one another and ask “What the hell is water?”

I chuckled when I read that. Good stories like that come and go all the time. The ones that stay with us have something clever and funny and poignant to say. Like the idea of being surrounded by something so all pervasive, so all consuming, that you don’t even see it or sense it or count it into ones worldview. Like the catch phrase “The Matrix Has You”  But what is the matrix?

In the 1999 movie The Matrix, a hacker learns, to his world-shaking shock, the true nature of reality. He learns that everything he thought was real was actually fake.  He realizes his lifelong sense of alienation was a true gut instinct. He learns there really is something fundamentally wrong with the world. That’s interesting. Its clever and poignant. It’s also shocking. The knowledge that things you thought were true and real are really unreal stays with you and changes you perhaps forever.

Here’s another parable I like. Its a Japanese proverb that says that we have three faces. You probably heard it before. I did too. Only recently it struck home. So, anyway, we have three faces. The first ‘face’ is the socially or culturally accepted mask we wear when we are out in society. The second one is the one we wear with our family and our intimates. The third one, this is the most secret one. This third self is one inside, the secret self, the truest one, that few ever see. I like that idea too.

The idea that we have secret selves appeals to me and is shown to be true over and over, by life, if not by science. The other idea, as depicted by the fish story, I love too. These two little stories merged in my mind – (1) the idea we are surrounded by a world we don’t see but affects us all the time, and that because of (1) we are (2) wearing masks that are not our truest selves.

Of course that could be all nonsense. Except, well, its not. We have an online world now, one where we interact and use every day, sometimes for long hours. Imagine if we actually added up how many hours a day we spent online. I did, and the number shocked me. It was a world shaking realization of the amount of time I was wasting. I realized just how addictive Facebook can be. In a sense, as there are billions online, on and off Facebook, we don’t realize its an addictive practise. Its also true that who we are offline is very often nothing remotely like who we are on for instance, Facebook, or Tinder, or Twitter.

It’s interesting too, that this online self is the one subject to so much scrutiny and manipulation by security services and marketing analysis and advertising targeting by Facebook itself and companies like Cambridge Analytica. On Facebook, you and I are the product. Our Profile is sold every time we are targeted with an Ad or a political post or we join a group. Each time we make a click or a like we get a little endorphin or dopamine kick. That’s the addictive effect, the need for stroking which is satisfied with a like, or even a love.

Online there’s so much to read, see, and experience. Yet we have so little time. In the ever shortening attention span of online life, we get three minute videos, witty pics, specially edited punchy journalism, and cat videos. Its catered to us, all based on previous reads or clicks or comments. We get summaries of movie plots and animal videos and bits of news and jokes and memes and cartoons.  We are amused. We read or click or comment, and that gets analysed and calibrated. And on it goes.

The benefit the online user gets for being on Facebook is stroking, the sense of belonging, amusement, love, distraction and the ability to comment and at times debate. Online, especially, there seems to be an increasing polarization and entrenchment of views, possibly because Facebook or Twitter isn’t really an arena for dissecting and carefully discussing incredibly complex multifaceted ideas be they political, religious, scientific, philosophical, or literary. It leads more often than not to misunderstanding and polarisation.

Facebook was formed in a dorm room by a gifted hacker who wanted to compare photographs of people who were pretty and who were not. It has grown and changed and evolved and enriched him beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. Facebook is a place for people to meet. Facebook is popcorn. Its too simplistic a vehicle for self expression. This is why, I think, one is left with a mask on when one goes online and its so easy to misinterpret things. I’m relieved, despite my present state of headachy withdrawal, to have left it behind me.

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Is The Matrix the World that Blinds us To The Truth?

The 1999 movie the Matrix was filled with puzzles. In some ways it was really mind blowing. For instance the biggest question, stolen from Alice in Wonderland was this:

What is the Matrix?

Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?

Neo: Yes.

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

Matrix-World-Map

 A good film, and, despite the fact it was a big budget blockbuster and had Keanu Reeves’ rather wooden performance, it asked interesting questions. The Matrix was indeed the world that people thought was real. Life, all of it, was a dream. Nothing one ever though was happening, was actually happening. So the question might be asked is this : What if we are in the matrix? What if none of this is real? Or more to the point, what if reality is being controlled? The notion behind the movie is one of the oldest puzzles known to sceptics like myself. What if we are not living, but dreaming we are alive in a world with a life and a partner and a career and a history? What if we are simply brains in a jar being fed impulses by mad scientists performing a devious experiment? The mad scientists in the movie were machines using people for an energy source, people who were living out their lives inside a vast machine that was feeding them impulses. By extension the jar that I am envisaging is rather like a skull, your skull, and my skull, and we are experiencing a delusion. I am not really here. I exist merely in your mind. So if we think about it, the ‘world’ or what the think is the world, is electrical signals feeding our brains impulses all the time and we are reacting to these impulses, living and thinking and reading and sleeping, and we have no way of ever getting past our senses to check to see if anything we know or think we know, including all the scientifically verifiable knowledge that we have collected, or indeed think we have collected, for the past number of millennia, is true or real. Scary stuff.

Now I want to make clear I don’t for a moment think we are all brains in Jars. Besides it being paranoid thinking, the problem is this: If a mad scientist  put my brain in a vat and hooked me up to a vast computer and fed me a fake reality, how would I know? Its impossible to know or ever realize or even conceive of being a brain in a vat if one actually is. It would be a delusion within a delusion, and it could never lead to anything other than an infinite regress of thinking. It would involve my own consciousness being able to examine itself, realize somehow that everything I was perceiving and experiencing was all fake, Maya, and then unplug myself. One has to be shown something like that. Reality has to be disconnected, then another, ‘real’ reality has to be re plugged in. The question then arises, how do we know the difference between the  former real and the second supposedly ‘real’ reality? A devilish problem. The simple fact is that the real is what we have been given before our eyes as real. Reality is as we have been given it. It is what our senses and our knowledge gives us, with all the misconceptions and faulty thinking attendant to that. Now we all live with various degrees of misconceptions about reality, and I agree, there is a lot of delusion going around and mistaken and faulty thinking, all of which we try to correct but to draw from that we are all sitting in some lab somewhere being fed illusion, is besides being unhelpful (except as a thought experiment perhaps), its something of a road to nowhere.