The most obvious example for me of software choreographing behaviour right now is definitely social media. I’ve dabbled on and off for years, and one of the most interesting things I’ve observed is the factionalisation of people, not by political leanings but by the platforms themselves. I was following Twitter at the start of lockdown, and my situated position on that platform at that time seemed to be nurturing certain consensuses about the users of a) Instagram, b) Facebook, c) Youtube, all for slightly different reasons, all seemingly linked to the delivery of information.
Instagram, being image based, was too surfacey, too idealised – as Twitter was evolving into a platform for candid and high-impact declarations, maximising its word-limit with bluntness and candid honesty, Instagram was a place without truth, a fantasy universe for those served by deception. Facebook, being mostly comprised of private interactions between bubbles of users, was without oversight or accountability, its users becoming characterised as old people and conspiracy theorists, and Youtube (/podcasting) was a space almost inherently problematic, premised as it was on being able to speak for several consecutive minutes, unscripted and without disclaimer or apology.
To the circumspect and cagey user of Twitter, who knows exactly how it is to become infamous via an unfortunate recontextualisation, it seemed like there was something egregiously self-indulgent about even imagining onesself capable of such fluency. As the dialect of Twitter grew couched in its own shorthand of disclaimers and humility-signifiers, Youtube and Podcasting (specifically the kind of Bro-casting that seemed to be getting popular in America at the time. And also anyone involved in Impro, comedy or otherwise) seemed to be almost automatically politically incorrect. Unreconstructed, as in ‘look at these unreconstructed people, thinking they can just talk’.
Then there was a lot of hostile discussion OF Twitter on these mediums as a kind of den of vipers, a place where nothing can grow, everything is clipped and paranoid and no one can, like, breathe properly. Some pretty terrible people got a lot of mileage out of this as a characterisation of the left, but it never struck me as something that could be so easily pinned to any one political ideology.
Twitter, meanwhile, had the interesting design of basically all interactions being public. Meaning that for users beyond a certain level of influence, any communication ostensibly WITH another user became less for the benefit of that user and more a performance for an audience. No one seemed to be above this disingenuous performance – not celebrity scientists, not politicians, not veteran journalists. When you’re talking to someone but not really talking to them, it’s all about what you can gain from the situation. Suddenly, the mic-drop moment became the currency of the platform. Everything was delivered outwards, one eye on a target audience. I think this probably had a pretty serious negative impact on political conversations, even as a lot of good work was done by progressive movements. This got covered in the Netflix film the Social Dillemma, the way in moments like BLM the social media algorithms were maximising engagement by showing as much inflammatory content as possible to those who they could predict would react the most (anger being apparently a better predictor of engagement than, say, joy), pretty much playing the [localised, goal-oriented, justice-seeking] BLM activists against [remote, economically vulnerable, generally quite misinformed] white conservatives until basically everyone was having a terrible time.
Anyway I find myself pretty much on the left-liberal-feminist-anticolonialist spectrum of thought, and I can’t deny that the awareness raising available through social media has been profound. But it does seem like there’s a price, a sort of monkey’s claw-deal that’s in the DNA of the platforms themselves – to say nothing of the influence they give to basically unregulated tech companies.
So the medium shapes the message, the tool limits behaviour. But there might be a mild counterpoint. I was going to talk about Godel, Escher, Bach, and that’s an interesting text because it takes conventions that have arisen in completely different pursuits and finds commonalities in them, suggesting that the cultural pursuit (drawing, music, maths) actually dictates form less than the systemic patterning of the human mind that precedes it. This could be a moment to try and step outside and see whether non-western-classical music is so invested in symmetry and resolution, mathematically resolving cadences and ‘correctness’ – which a lot of it almost certainly isn’t. And the bottom line may be less the inherent properties of human consciousness and information structuring and more certain conventions of thought embedded by civilisation. But it is still interesting to imagine if some kind of stratified or systemic computational principles do inform the way our minds work, we perceive the world around us and process experiences and ideas.
On that note, I find myself thinking about my BA dissertation (religious studies), trying to square ideas about the evolutionary biology of experiential Pain as a survival system with the scriptural positioning of pain in Buddhism as a crucial gateway beyond the conception of the self; become equanimous with the experience of pain and you essentially sandbox your programming as an evolutionary machine, allowing for experiences outside of what your ‘operating system’ has evolved to offer you. Reading a book right now called the Case Against Reality that seems to make a lot of the same points, arguing that there is very little justification within a modern evolutionary theory of mind for the idea of Veracity of experience (I forget the word the author uses) being rewarded by evolutionary processes. If we can imagine that we are not evolving towards truth, we may as well imagine we have never encountered it, our entire systems of processing light/sound/touch etc being entirely subjective and functional, serving ONLY to the extent that they facilitate survival.
Which kind of brings me to my passion for this course. If our baseline consciousness is defined by survival it is defined also by scarcity, competition and threat-detection, all of which faculties are tuned to periods of evolutionary development that were considerably more hostile, scarce and threatening. Then our baseline consciousness does not serve us in this current climate – is a significant obstacle, like a traumatised parent circumscribing the life of a child in a much safer world.
Meanwhile the astrophysicists and the quantum physicists and the molecular biologists are all but kicking down the door, begging us to consider that Reality may actually look less like buses and burgers and income tax self assessment forms, and more like percolating rhizomes of recursive principles of growth, fractals, double helixes, vortexes, black holes. It may yet be that our visual representations of these things are still unanchored, still without recourse to the realities that underpin them. But still, it strikes me as inherently worthwhile to engage with the form and aesthetic character (if not the specifics) of reality as presented by those who study it closely, especially as a temporary retreat from an experienced realilty that is clearly built out of symbols and signifiers originating in much darker and more desperate times.
If we are going to critically evaluate the software tools we use and coexist with now, that critical eye can also be cast backwards, a ‘pop’ in Hofstadtler’s language instead of a ‘push’, to consider the limitations of our own experience and how they determine our own behaviour patterns.