Overwhelm, curators, and the collaborative mind

Did you know that Instagram has links in story; WhatsApp added disappearing messages; Telegram has new weird scrambling messages; scientists successfully transplanted a pig’s heart into a human being; Kattar beat Giga 50-45 UD; Ireland beat West Indies 2-1 in a three match ODI series; Manchester United blew a 2-0 lead vs Aston Villa; Real Madrid won the Supercopa de Espana and all this happened last week. Notice that I did not mention anything about politics, technology, or the major pandemic which has caused some serious PR trouble for Djokovic and the government of Australia. These things are trivial at best but enough to overwhelm the mind.

The age of information is thus turning into the age of overwhelm. Gone are the days of the well-informed citizen who used to be on top of matters and formed informed opinions instead of some dogmatic cant recited by the disseminators of information. Due to the sheer amount of information, discounting its increasing complexity, it is impossible to process all of it. Everyone is already overwhelmed by either things to keep tabs on or people to contact and the small window of time afforded to a citizen to be well-informed is just big enough to fit a smorgasbord of headlines.

As a result, getting news from social media is becoming the new normal. This opens up a whole new set of possibilities for trolls –- who are strictly defined as people who try to mislead masses using clever misinformation for a hoot and not the hate-mongering ideologues the term is now used to refer to because of lazy journalism –- and ideologues. Trolls create chaos and mischief. Ideologues promise to make the world seem oh so simple and understandable and not overwhelming at all.

Powerful, as measured by social reach, ideologues then spawn a whole subspecies of ideologies because the matter at hand was never so simple as to be reduced to a single line of thought in the first place. This is a contributing factor in the curious phenomenon of the internet being a breeding ground for niche subcultures. The formation of subcultures leads to more alienation, more dogmatism, and further fragmentation of thought into simple rationalisations.

Fragmentation of ideologies often has disastrous consequences. Some branches of ideologies take a moderate idea to its logical extreme, which is a phenomenon observed in religions around the world. And ideologues can have a religious fervour to them, their actions, and the certainty in their speech is mesmerizing for people struggling to make any sense of the world. These are the larger questions, at least a subset of the larger questions, with implications on the larger society and not the individual, but individuals do not exist in a vacuum and are affected by what exists around them.

The amount of information present calls for curators: Google curates millions of websites according to your specific query, YouTube’s feed, Instagram’s explore page, and so on and so forth. They were always there: newspaper editors, radio/TV news correspondents, book publishers, etc. But the internet promised decentralization and freedom of information which, when you really look into it, is just an illusion. Even community websites like Wikipedia have curators, moderators, editors, basically, people who have authority over the information you can see. So curators may exist as long as information does, they can be human or AI-based algorithms, but they’re there and their presence is morally, mostly, neither good nor bad as an idea. What matters is how ethical the individual curators are.

All this means is that we are, at any point in time, part of a large community of curators whom we trust. Our mental makeup is then a collaborative effort which means we are essentially the CEOs of a hypothetical company that produces the product that is our mental model used to produce opinions and judgements. It is then crucial to not fool ourselves about our sources of information and to choose wildly.

The Book of (mostly good) Questions

The Book of Questions is an interesting read. It presents itself as a compendium of questions to contemplate (mentioned in the introduction) sugar-coated as a book of conversation starters. Any conversations started using the questions listed in the book, however, won’t make for pleasant conversation. This is a good thing. The book is essentially a set of prompts. These prompts appear innocuous but are crafted to stimulate the mind and do so with great results.

As a sampler from the book, here’s a question, a supposed conversation starter which is a trojan-horse for greater questions one would generally like to avoid:

Would you rather lose the use of all motorized vehicles all telecom devices and computers or one of your hands?

This question can be answered in two contexts: (i) I lose all my privileges but no one else does, or (ii) Everyone loses all their privileges. Since the question revolves around personal agency, I would say the former would be closer to the original intent of the author asking the question.

In order to answer this question we need to see what roles motorized vehicles, telecom devices, computers, and hands play in our day-to-day lives, then we have to assess the pros and cons of losing them in different contexts. The loss of a hand will have more lasting consequences both emotionally and physically. Losing ease-of-access privileges might directly relate to life expectancy.

Then there is the question of friendship and its role in such a case, because if you lose the privileges but no one else does, it should be possible to cooperate, which is also possible with the loss of a hand. This is complicated by our essentially social minds that will revolt against being left out which can transform into a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to less likelihood of finding people who would cooperate. And this brings us to the fact that human lives are interdependent and at any point in time there are thousands of variables affecting all areas of our lives. It is easy to knock a human life off kilter with so many interdependent variables involved which then depend on how they stand with regard to the larger social group.

The larger context of individuals behaving as a lesser degree of cyborg is important. We are dependent on technology and we co-operate and co-ordinate with it to solve problems. Even though devices are not directly implanted to our physical bodies, we are already behaving like technologically enhanced humans. Our interactions with technology are natural: unlocking a smartphone requires a negligible amount of conscious thought and losing a phone feels like losing a limb. The era of the cyborg is already upon us.

All of which means that losing access to technology and losing access to a hand are two concepts that are not as dissimilar as they superficially appear to be. This further complicates things for us the chooser as we’re pitted in a debate about man vs nature. Is it better to lose the acquired limbs of entrenched technology or if losing a limb would be, in some ways, better? It is not an easy question.

So the superficially easy, and somewhat politically incorrect, question which seems innocuous touches so many aspects of human life that you can’t tackle it without going into the most fundamental of all debates: nature versus civilisation.

The author’s introduction says that the questions are not to be answered trivially with a simple yes or no response and that is a good rule-of-thumb for this book. It is unsettling to work through the questions one by one. And this itself raises a good question: how do we know what we know is true? The definition of truth is often the domain of religion and philosophy which again leaves you with a question: are all truths fundamentally religious?

Asking these questions, or those of its ilk, means that the book meets spec. It does what it says i.e. hones one’s ability to question everything.

New things for the new year.

Some things bouncing around in my head.

Get sunlight in the morning, even on the cloudy wintry days. Getting sunlight exposure in the morning starts the circadian rhythm. Most problems with sleep originate from how we start our day. Minimum two minutes, thirty is optimal, five is most likely. Can reduce anxiety. A little walk is even better.

Use blink rate as a lever to control attention. Attention depends on how we blink. A faster blink rate equals less attention and vice versa. So it might be helpful to use it as a lever to control attention.

Try influencing psychology using physiology. A problem of the mind cannot be solved by the mind. Use physiology. Take a walk. Use your peripheral vision to have a relaxed gaze in times of rest. Counter the hunched posture with some exercise/stretches. It can help a lot.

Take any style guide and learn how to write. Writing is a fundamental skill. The remote world requires a lot of emailing.

Try programming in rust. It’s a fun language. Stretch yourself. Learning new languages is always good fun.

The lever of reality in fiction

Mundane detail is the lifeblood of an absurd, fantastical story. When absurdism or magical realism works, we experience the magic/absurdity as out of the ordinary but plausible. This happens because the framework of reality used is well described.

Mundane detail is one great way of describing a framework of reality. People who have read Murakami’s works find realism juxtaposed against fantasy. He isn’t the first writer to do so, but his attention to chores and mundane activities grounds the plot allowing the fantasy to flourish.

Reality in fiction is fake. All fiction is essentially fantasy as it arises from the writer’s mind and cannot be an objective representation of a situation even in the best of cases. Realism and reality then become a tool to be used instead of being the end all be all goal of fiction. This raises another question: what is reality in fiction?

Reality in fiction can be considered as the level of sensual detail that is consistent with how the average human being perceives the world.

In another sense, we can say that the level of detail congruent with the everyday experiences or expectations of the reader is reality in fiction. So increasing the level of detail is itself a fantasy and could be called hyperrealism.

Consider a character casually glancing at a wall: noticing that a room’s wall is blue is real, but if the colour of the wall changes by the second it is fantastical, and if the character can see a crack in the upper right corner of the wall that is barely visible at a glance then it is hyperrealism where the detail is factual, but the observation of it is not consistent with the reader’s experience. Fantasy worlds can be made real, or the real world made fantastical by leveraging detail and the sensory perception of detail.

A struggle

Every one of us has to struggle against their self centered nature. We believe that the world revolves around us because we can only see with our own eyes. Intellectually it makes sense and is obvious, but to follow this thought with appropriate behavior is a constant struggle. To do so is to go against what we see. To do so takes effort and a certain amount of vigilance. It might be impossible to reprogram ourselves completely when the physical reality of our lives works against us but we can all try our best.

Out of the hermitage

Socialisation after a long hiatus from interacting with the world is a unique experience. It does put fear into perspective. Just the idea of a conversation is terrifying. On the other hand, you do get a rush from it. A conversation feels like doing a scary physical activity with negative consequences.

The hardest thing to overcome is your own imagination. It tries to construct worst-case scenarios that aren’t even possible. To be able to imagine all that and still proceed to leave the hermitage gives one a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment for what most of the population achieves without thinking twice.

It is a crippling state of mind, but the knowledge of it being so does not help. Only lining up the seemingly petty accomplishments reduces the nerves somewhat.

You tend to feel like a performer who needs to tackle stage fright. I don’t have stage fright, but conversations with people, especially if I want something in a practical situation at some service operated by people, are terrifying.

White Birds

When the fields are ploughed, white birds come looking for worms. They appear out of nowhere, and they sit in the fields pecking at the loose soil. Other birds circle above them or wait in a tree for their turn. This only happens when the fields are ploughed. There is a time and place for everything.

I have spent almost two years in a room with walls painted blue. It was the time for a brief hermitage. Days were spent reading, thinking, sitting still, doing nothing. It was the time for sitting still.

Now it feels like this time is coming to an end. Solitude has lost its ability to nourish and comfort. Now it is just depressing. The time to go back into the world is approaching. I need to prepare myself.

Flower and Snail

On to some real talk. Have you seen a giant snail eat a flower? Have you seen it gobble the whole thing and lounge there on the land as if it was nothing?

If you show the snail and the flower to a random person on the street they will, most of the time, say that the flower is beautiful and the giant snail grotesque. Some will want to eat the flower, some will want to fry the snail in butter, some will want to eat them both.

That the snail is a snail and the flower is a flower is important. But what does the snail make of the flower? Food. That’s it. What does the flower make of the snail? Not known. But we have an idea of what they make of each other. We think: the snail is hungry and needs food. Does the snail know it’s hungry? How much of our life is projection and personification? Are we attributing mental faculties to the snail that don’t exist?

What about the other snail on the wall where there’s only paint and no flowers? It’s about the same size. It’s not fatter or taller. Does it not hunger for flowers?

What about the flower? Is its life more important than the snail’s? Is it our duty to save the flower from the snail?

What about the snail then? If it dies of hunger, is it not our responsibility.

It’s a snail eating a flower. Poor flower; happy snail.

Writing this post.

I truly do not know what to write. The thought of writing something for the larger public to read is a thought that terrifies me, but it needs to be done. Creativity cannot survive without sharing. So it will need to be done. A page written. Another blog post another shot in the dark looking for some way to do something.

Applying any kind of pressure on myself certainly does not work. It never has and it never will. The only way I am gonna be able to post on the blog in any way consistently is by making sure that I write about 40000 words in a day and salvage 400 pearls of wisdom from it. So what’s going on in my life that could be of any possible interest to anybody. What’s the way the wind’s been blowing what did I see in the world that is genuinely pissing me off. Or what’s beautiful and what’s happening in this world. Here’s a good one. What’s an adult? What marks the passing of the torch from the teen spirit to the adult? Is there some rite of passage that I don’t know about and I’m the only manchild running around in these neck of the woods? It’s a decent question but it’s a question I do not know the answer to. So should this even be a piece? It doesn’t appear ripe. But if this isn’t ripe then what is ripe? That is a good question.

See it didn’t work. I need to let it just flow out of me in any way it desires. What is it? I don’t know but I will know when I see it. And that is the fundamental problem of creativity: you never know what you’re trying to do before you’ve done it. That is a pain in the ass. Other than that the self-consciousness doesn’t help one bit. The belief that whatever you’re writing will be dogshit and people will laugh at you is another one you’ve got to be wary of. Otherwise, you can just be antisocial like me and forget that people exist. If they don’t exist they can’t laugh at your work. Unfortunately, the people who would laugh at my work live in the same house as me and that is a good thing because it also means that they will see none of it and they can’t make fun of what they can’t see.

Speaking of assholes. There was this guy his truck was in the middle of the road and it was dumping sand into a construction area but the truck was blocking the road and we had a roadblock for no good reason really. And speaking of roadblocks and assholes and the lack of freedom in this world. Consider the dog bound to a corner on the roof. That dog dreams of a leash-free life. But now consider the other dog on the street. Its leg is gone. It limps on through the traffic eager to find food. Which dog is better off? The emotionally deprived and chained dog who whines and barks on the roof all day or the street dog who can do whatever but has no security? Is any one of them better off than the other or are they the two sides of the same coin and why are animal problems so similar to human problems? It’s almost like, gasp, humans are animals. What a vulgar thought. Colonial-era brits would’ve got me for this. But it is what it is. All beings suffer. But we only know of our pain. And now I am cringe and new age and god knows what else. Maybe I just am a terrible writer but I am not so terrible because I predicted it would happen earlier so which one is it. Radadada that is the way of life here and all places else. I don’t really live here. My screentime till now is 6 hours that’s almost fifty percent of the day. So I’m only half here and chances are you’re also only half here so don’t be judgemental about me being disconnected. This is just fun. Shooting the shit. Having a good time. And that is why it is, for the most part, anonymous. It is by design so I can bin anything and deny the existence of any embarrassing posts.

Okay, white ants, white ants why ants and why white. White ants don’t exist, not really, they’re termites. Termites are sometimes mistakenly classified as white ants, but that doesn’t really explain anything. Let’s see, white ants are termites, in a way, and termites eat wood. Wood is the body and the ants are words. This is a reference to Sun and Steel where Mishima makes this very classification.

No, it’s not working. It has stopped flowing. The words are not true anymore; they feel made up. I don’t want it to be so, come on man. Just bring it in any way you want to bring it to a topic of some kind come on you can do it in a way.

Well fuck what do I know. I read it over and man it has some true energy ringing through the paragraph but it’s not enough.

Here it goes:

Ants, white ants, why ants and why are they white? White ants are not ants, they’re termites. This is a reference to Sun and Steel by Mishima. That’s all there is to the name and I don’t have anything to say.