Knowledge in the Era of Fake News
“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” — Jesus Christ
“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” — Marshall McLuhan
“My Twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.” — Donald J Trump
This article is third in a series of articles on hyperreal psychotechnologies.
What follows is an exploration of how meaning can be created for the wider population today.
- The first article surveys the paradigm used in these articles.
- The second article applies this paradigm to today, in particular, April 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 and self-quarantining.
Humanity’s success is due largely to our ability to learn from and work with each other. Human success is not limited to what we can gain and learn in a single lifetime. The basis for shared ventures is our ability to create meaning through our interactions across space and time.
Today, we exist in hyperreality. Hyperreality emerges when we construct our sense of reality through technology. Hyperreality includes the internet, media, books, podcasts, built environments, and other forms of technological production.
When we gain more sophistication with what technology can do, we eventually become suspicious of what is presented. For example, the first movie, train en gare de La Ciotat nearly caused panic as the first moviegoers saw a train rushing towards them. Audiences eventually became more suspicious of movies and stopped being uncritical about what they saw on the screen. An example of new technology includes deep fakes, where algorithms create videos showing people doing/saying something they actually didn’t do/say.
Two examples of media suspicion come to mind: Stephen Colbert’s Truthiness, and Donald Trump’s Fake News.
The difference between the two is how truth is grokked. Fake news is the presentation of a lie as having happened. Truthiness is about how meaning in hyperreality is be produced.
Either way, both point to a distrust of hyperreality. Hyperreality can only present simulations and simulacra — the appearance of something on a record. Records are only artifacts of a technology. Technology is manipulable. We can generate records without events, or manipulate technology to alter records.
The problem explored in this article isn’t that a record is false; the problem is about identifying actionable meaning — meaningful meaning — meaning that matters.
The Colbert Report’s success was to show how meaning can be overproduced. Similarly, today there is too much meaning — but, like with The Colbert Report, much of that meaning is meaningless, as meaning can be trivia (just look at Wikipedia).
Meaningful meaning is actionable knowledge so that the results of acting on that knowledge fulfill our intentions. An additional crucial component of knowledge: having relevant feedback. Feedback is something that is often missing as we send text messages, emails, and work through programs and to our peers. Often we get little or no valuable feedback.
This article strives to answer a fundamental question: In a world where everything is a record (and thus manipulable), how can we attain knowledge, so that we can make choices that are relevant?
In the first section, we explore the manner by which hyperreality influences us in our knowledge of the world and our actions, to establish the context for our question about knowledge. In the second section, we explore how human knowledge (what is meaningful and actionable) is dependent on the nature of human relationships. In the last two sections, we conclude with an emphasis on addressing social fragmentation through action, coordination, and clear knowledge building.
1 The Form of Hyperreality’s Expression
We understand that hyperreality is technologically reproduced. Hyperreality is an artifact, a record. So why do we trust our media?
This issue of trust has been around since human beings have been generating records, from fake islands made by mapmakers and white-collar fraud, to April 2020, when people share fake news on social media because we can’t agree on what constitutes news.
What is important to understand is that information is never “just presented”. Hyperreality and media are psychotechnologies in that they are ways of influencing our psychology.
Hyperreality and media influence our psychology through the use of formal expressive conventions, a prerequisite of being media literate. Books, articles, and movies are always presenting in specific manners guiding the reader’s attention. Being able to digest information in one of these styled forms is the essence of media literacy. Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man quotes John Wilson of the African Institute of London University on his study of non-film literate people being exposed to film:
Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving. You see, the convention was not accepted. Nor was the idea of a person sitting still while the camera was brought in to a close-up; this was a strange thing, this picture growing bigger in your presence. You know the common way of starting a film: show the city, narrow it down to a street, narrow it down to one house, take your camera in through the window, etc. This was literally interpreted as you walking forward and doing all those things until you were finally taken in through the window.
All of this meant that to use film as a really effective medium we had to begin a process of education in useful conventions and make those films which would educate people to one convention, to the idea, for example, of a man walking off to the side of the screen. We had to show that there was a street corner and have the man walk around the street corner and then in the next part of the film show him walking away, and then cut the scene.
If done well, for mediate literate audiences, these conventional forms of presentation become invisible. Great films utilize film conventions that align with the message so that audiences only get the intensity of the message. Alignment between the form of expression (style) and the substance of the message provides audiences the experience of what is being presented as a coherent thought-form. The video below analyses the film conventions used in a single scene from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
The video above carefully de-constructs how the film simulates meaning via the expression of content. When we apply fake news as a way to understand this film, then this film qualifies as fake news because the scene is fiction (it didn’t happen). However, no one would treat this film as fake news because we know it is fiction. When we apply truthiness as a way to understand this film, the application makes more sense. The success of the scene means understanding the Joker as a powerful force with all the complexities Nolan wants. The film can only present us this meaning of power and menace because the cinematography so masterfully simulates this meaning. Watch the video, it’s pretty fascinating.
In contrast, films like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room are unable to deploy their scenes in a manner that matches the message. This film is so bad at using film conventions that it has become a cult classic. Film conventions are misused, scenes are misframed or conventions run counter to the consistency of the scene’s intended meaning. As a result, media-literate audiences find the film jarring and disjointed. The misapplication of the forms of expression breaks the audiences’ attention so that the force of the message is lost. When thought-forms produced in the movie counter each other instead of building into coherency, immersion in the film is made difficult because audiences have to work harder to keep their attention on the message.
The lesson here is that hyperreality operates at a level deeper than the simple deployment of content. Hyperreality is produced by the very nature of information technology’s conventions of framing and presentation. Very new or very old information technology will have unfamiliar forms of expression. Audience literacy and the technology evolve together as new forms of expression emerge as conventions of presenting meaning. In hyperreality, the production of meaning happens when audiences adopt certain forms of expression as ways to take in information as having certain meanings.
An example may be in order. In the essay Art and Education, Roy Ascott explores how Renaissance art in the Western world creates a modality of experience/understanding extending throughout the West as a shared culture:
Art does not reside in the object alone, nor is meaning fixed or stable within the physical limits of the artist’s work. Art is all process, all system. If in the past, we have thought otherwise — for example, that art is an object, or that artwork “carries” a definitive meaning “created” by the artist and received by the viewer — this can be understood in the light of our Renaissance heritage. The ordering of space in Renaissance painting, with its authority of the vanishing point, which is also positioned the viewer in relation to the “world” and established control of a reality consisting of separate and discrete parts (everything in its place and a place for everything), can be seen as the perfect metaphor of the ordering of parts in societies to which it gave expression. Renaissance space is authorized as “real” space by many of these societies in which information flows one way, from the apex of the social pyramid to the base, where it informs the thinking, the orthodoxies, the rules of conduct of a culture. This one-way dispatch fashions consciousness and enforces a dominant scientific paradigm, just as the vanishing point and rules of representation determine, within the pyramid of space based at the picture plane, a coherent view of the world presented as “reality”. Under these circumstances, the art object could well be understood as embodying not only unambiguous meaning and beauty but also absolute truth. This form of representation and this status of the object as art continues today, of course, in some quarters and has to some extent been automated by the photographic process. Its persistence is well understood given the seductive nature of the apparent certainty and coherence it claimed to depict.
Essentially Renaissance painting presented a thought-form that people used to construct an orderly view of the world that is paradoxically both thought to be objective and according to a single point of view. This thought-form is still relevant as it structures most people’s salience landscape.
For instance, consider mansplaining works as a critique. Mansplaining names how a single man’s point of view is privileged as being more objective and justified because it came from a man. Again, we have the paradox of something “meaning” objective despite it having been constructed from a single (and thus limited) point of view.
A person’s salience landscape is their background of obviousness. A salience landscape is a metaphorical field that describes how people have different expectations in how they should construct meaning. This field structures experience by pre-selecting/making salient certain aspects of experiences as those aspects can more easily trigger particular forms of meaning.
This selection process is how hyperreality functions. Recall Stephen Colbert’s truthiness. Truthiness satirizes the overproduced news formats of pundits disguised as news anchors, people like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Colbert’s form of engagement is, therefore, at a level removed from Trump’s fake news. Fake news is simply false content presented as truth. Truthiness is about how the form of expression can simulate meaning on its own.
Simulation is why The Colbert Report and The Daily Show belong on Comedy Central even if the substance of the shows is literally from the news. In other words, even if the substance is the same as news, comedy is differentiable from news on the level of expression alone. In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard notes that a hyperreal technology operates solely on the form of expression, as the content can be for something or against it. For Baudrillard, regarding hyperreality, all content is presented within the same forms inherent in hyperreal expression, because those forms are what make hyperreal expression understandable.
The media carry meaning and countermeaning, they manipulate in all directions at once, nothing can control this process, they are a vehicle for simulation internal to the system and the simulation that destroys the system.
This consistency of expression independent of truth is why hyperreality ultimately undermines itself.
Media conventions in hyperreality are a psychotechnology, molding the psychology of the audience. When an audience first adopts a convention they can be fooled for a short time, taken by hyperreality’s verisimilitude. However, if tricked too much, audiences become jaded and the expression loses its impact. (In a real way, post-2017, the cynicism of audiences is why information technology companies, like FaceBook, seek to remove misinformation just as they continuously remold their interface to keep interactions “fresh”.)
Likewise, only after newscasters, like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, established their own style of media convention could someone like Jon Stuart appear, parroting those conventions.
Hyperreality begins to destroy its basis, as
- people begin to reject the naturalness of its conventions, understanding how to manipulate the underlying technology while
- people also confusingly assign verisimilitude to the presence of certain thought-forms.
The first reason is one way to understand what The Colbert Report mocks (the conventions of The O’Reilly Factor). The second reason is one way to understand what The Colbert Report mocks (audience enthusiasm) in shows like The O’Reilly Factor.
Either way, the artifice of hyperreal media conventions and the thought-forms they inject allows for the creation of hyperreal events that Baudrillard calls non-events. Baudrillard notes how hyperreal events have subversive qualities, even if those events only exist in hyperreality:
the media are products not of socialization, but of exactly the opposite, of the implosion of the social in the masses. […] This implosion should be analyzed according to McLuhan’s formula, the medium is the message […]. Only the medium can make an event — whatever the contents, whether they are conformist or subversive. […] Beyond this neutralization of all content, one could still expect to manipulate the medium in its form and to transform the real by using the impact of medium as form. If all the content is wiped out, there is perhaps still a subversive, revolutionary use value of the medium as such.
This revolutionary value of the medium is the untapped potential in new hyperreal platforms. For instance, recall how WeChat is so closely controlled by the Chinese government and how they so closely integrate it into daily life. Or how Twitter helped unleashed the Arab Spring in the early 2010s. Nonetheless, despite its potential for disruption, we continue to use these new mediums of media. After all, we want to know what is going on — the technology is not going away, and other people are using it. What we end up being seduced by, and the later exhausted with, is that when the forms of hyperreality attain singularity, all events are media events.
What is particularly seductive about hyperreal events is the presence they create as viewer engagement produces additional meaning. In hyperreality, this passive form of engagement becomes the form of participation for audiences, as hyperreal relationships are loops in themselves for themselves.
Roy Ascott in his article Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace? writes
In the telematization of the creative process, the roles of artist and viewer, designer and consumer, become diffused; the polarities of maker and user become destabilized. This will lead ultimately, no doubt, to changes in status description and use of cultural institutions: a re-description (and revitalization, perhaps) of the academy, museum, gallery, archive, workshop, and studio.
You can add to that list: economy, government, biology, corporation, consumer, worker (etc).
This form of participation encroaches slowly. At first glance, hyperreality merely expresses reality on a layer of abstracted content separate from living experience. Eventually, hyperreality re-designates what lived experience is, even if events are purely simulations. At first glance, this looks like a paradox: how can a purely hyperreal event have real-world consequences?
1.1 Empty Expressions, Real Consequences
Hyperreality, as produced by technology, can only be a product of technology. For example, Colbert’s satire on ‘truthiness’ can only perpetuate the 24/7 news cycle as The Colbert Report addresses news by producing more news. Baudrillard describes this phenomenon as
that of the refusal of meaning and of the spoken word — or of the hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is a form of refusal and of non-reception.
This approach is akin to the emphasis on bureaucratic technicalities in order to forestall producing content, instead, generating more procedure.
Essentially what happens is that since everything presented in hyperreality appears with the same force as hyperreal expression, eventually what is and isn’t the truth starts to lose distinction.
This kind of generation of endless hyperreal events is where President Trump excels. Not only does the President fill the airwaves and internet feeds with his brand of grandstanding (no matter what happens) — Trump has been able to present his own brand as an authority, independent of CNN, or even Fox News — in some sense, with his Twitter account, independent of being President. Trump manufacturers crises by constantly shaking up the hyperreal.
It’s important to note that hyperreality can only proliferate — and proliferate Donald Trump has. He works the form successfully because the formal expression is independent of meaning. It doesn’t matter if the left and right cannot agree on what Donald Trump means. Meaning isn’t important because meaning is what is produced, via the repetition of media events.
With the hyperreal, we are guaranteed repetition of the forms, not the meaning that comes with it.
This continual repetition in media with non-events is described by Baudrillard as
equivalent to returning the system its own logic by doubling it, to reflecting meaning, like a mirror, without absorbing it. This strategy (if one can still speak of strategy) prevails today because it was used in by the phase of the system which prevails.
Because all the news is at the same level of presentation pundits can never win. Pundits can only re-construct meaning differently despite the use of conventions. Presentation in hyperreality only marks the opportunity for an event to emerge. If someone declared what it all meant this would only, prompt even more declarations, endlessly commenting (because commenting is the only participation there can be).
We can draw an analogy with postmodern art as a play with simulacra and simulation.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing a Mike Kelley exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). Kelley made multiple presentations of a fictional city Kandor from the Superman Universe. This city of the last surviving Kryptonians was captured in miniaturized form by a villain: Brainiac. The story goes that Brainiac held the city hostage for a time, torturing the citizens until Superman rescued them. The exhibit at MOCA consisted of multiple reproductions of the city in colored glass or plastic with subdued lighting and vague screams. A photo is pictured below.
This exhibit is an example of a non-event. There is nothing of substance here, only affect and presentation. There are no tiny people. Despite the screams and the ominous lighting, nothing is at stake. Even if Kelley presented tiny people, as little robots moving around in terror, that terror would be a mock terror as nothing would still be at stake. This art exhibit is purely a hyperreal event, a non-event.
With the media, there are multiple non-events presented often. Baudrillard’s examples include The Three Mile Island Crisis, an event widely reported on by the news for their potential nuclear disaster even though nothing happened. My point isn’t that there was no leak or no danger; my point is that all of the excitement around the event was generated by news coverage and existed solely on the level of hyperreal news coverage.
Additional examples of non-events, generated by the media to hype the population include the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the insistence that there were weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein, the propaganda about the Huns to spur Americans to fight in World War 1 and of course, every stock market swing, and everything Donald Trump tweets.
There are, of course, consequences to any of these actions, as people can lose their savings. Innocent people are killed, or go to jail. Hyperreality may just be reproductions; illusions. But hyperreality still has an impact on the world.
Today in April 2020, COVID-19 serves as another non-event (which isn’t to deny that COVID-19 is a disease), where media and social media produce signification for the public even if the public may not completely agree on what is happening (there are conspiracies everywhere) or what it means (failure of government or political hoax).
These non-events are all carried by the form of expression (how COVID-19 is deployed/talked about) in hyperreality. Nonetheless, the point is that this reproduction impacts our salience landscape, subtly shifting our sense of reality with and without our awareness. With that shift, our behavior changes as we construct meaning differently.
Noam Chomsky had a term for this phenomenon in the late 20th century as he called it manufacturing consent. For Chomsky, in a democracy, consent was manufactured by a combination of celebrity, news outlets, and American advertising — all of it to lull us to the position of passive consumer.
Likewise, the Soviet Union had their own form of propaganda. Intentionally or not, in both America and Soviet Russia, hyperreality re-positions us.
1.2 Hyperreal Subjects
In Anti-Oedopius, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari explore that one of the consequences of capitalism is that it works to alter our sense of self. Capitalism works as a hyperreality, affording the production of endless significations so that ultimately individuals become alternately worker and consumer, with their personal sense of self relegated to passive roles of media consumption. They write
The person has become “private” in reality, insofar as he derives from abstract quantities and becomes concrete in the becoming-concrete of these same quantities. It is these quantities that are marked, no longer the persons themselves: your capital or your labor capacity, the rest is not important, we’ll always find a place for you within the expanded limits of the system, even if an axiom has to be created just for you. There is no longer any need of a collective investment of organs, as they are sufficiently filled with the floating images constantly produced by capitalism. To pursue a remark of Henri Lefebvre’s, these images do not initiate a making public of the private so much as the privatization of the public: the whole world unfolds right at home, without one’s having to leave the TV screen. This gives private persons a very special role in the system: a role of application, and no longer of implication, in a code.
Hyperreality remakes humans so that humans can participate within hyperreality. Baudrillard describes this strategy as “a system whose argument is oppression and repression, the strategic resistance is the liberating claim of subjecthood.” Some aspects of our person are liberated while other aspects are suppressed as hyperreality enables some relationships while obscuring others, crafting a new hyperreal subject.
This is easily seen in James Cameron’s The Avatar as vet Sam Worthington’s disability is obscured by his avatar while other forms of interaction are enabled. Below is a video of Worthington awakening and exploring his new body as he can suddenly walk.
Other examples of how hyperreality can remake us include video games, cosplay, the military, and political correctness. Each acts as a simulation analogous to interpellation. Philosopher Louis Althusser explores this concept of interpellation as the production of subjectivity from ideological state apparatuses. The production of this “false consciousness” generated from state institutions is a description like that of hyperreality producing subjectivity. From Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses:
I shall therefore say that, where only a single subject (such and such individual) is concerned, the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into his material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which we derive the ideas of that subject…Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.
In the same way, Worthington created a false consciousness for himself when he accepted the version of himself as his true self, even if that self is produced by his experience in an avatar living among the Na’vi.
In some sense, this kind of produced subjectivity has always been in effect. Today all state apparatuses are hyperreal, although ideological state apparatuses have always been at most, a psychotechnology. Some of the earliest codified psychotechnologies included the formation of the first legal bureaucracies including The Code of Hammurabi, the first record of legalized commercial interactions and Legalism, a school of bureaucratic thought which, under the First Emperor of China, became the backbone of the Chinese administrative system of governance for over 2000 years.
Today this psychotechnology as a legalistic code persists, governing what nature is allowable for human subjects. For example, here is some text from California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act:
(b) All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, citizenship, primary language, or immigration status are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.
While the Unruh Act isn’t hyperreality, it is psychotechnology — as it forces us, as citizens to consider interpersonal commercial relationships in a particular way, with the prohibition of a fine ($4,000 in statutory damages), if we do not follow its guidelines.
This same aesthetic, of equality, was reproduced in hyperreality, through the ironic use of inclusive language in the media during the 1980s. By 2000 this kind of language became pejoratively known as political correctness. The naming of this form of inclusion coincided with its rejection from conservatives. This is another example of how hyperreality, through its production of expressive form ultimately self destructs. The reproduction of meaning through an expressive form has a limit within the domain, as some people will reject that form if they begin to find it inapplicable.
Subjects will reject that expressive format once that form becomes liberated from its original context. For example, contemporary politics is facing this kind of liberation as the Republican party became more extreme in its expression after the election of Barack Obama. Similarly, the Democratic Party responded with the election of Donald Trump by threatening to fragment as recent contention between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden reached an extreme, with some Democrats refusing to vote for Biden.
This rejection of hyperreal expression is accelerated by hyperreal expressions, as hyperreal forms have not ceased. What has changed is that speakers have become hypersubjective as speakers now adopt different bases for how to navigate the expressive landscape of hyperreality.
Kira Hall in Hypersubjectivity: Language, anxiety, and indexical dissonance in globalization writes that
Hypersubjectivity emerges […] as speakers become reflexively aware that the form-meaning relations they rely on to make sense of their lives are viewed as personal liability.
Hypersubjectivity emerges when, in the same hyperreal space (online), individuals face ambiguity as to what counts as acceptable behavior. The hyperreal internet has both flattened relationships, juxtaposing many different contexts in the same space while providing no guidance for how to build relationships.
From the point of view of the social body, the group fragments because we cannot agree on the meaning of events, nor can we agree on the context from which to frame the event, to understand what aspects of a context are relevant.
This confusion is a kind of post-contextuality, which I explore further in this article. Post-contextuality is the condition whereby the production of context is flipped. In broadcast media, the release of the story marked the end of a news cycle was. In social media, the release of the story marked the start of the news cycle. This largely came about because mobile devices lowered the cost of participating in hyperreality. Increased participation destabilized meaning as the context can radically change in comment threads. Instead of being presented with meaning, we all have a hand in creating meaning through our interactions as post-contextual speakers.
Ironically, while post-contextuality presents us with the opportunity to create shared meaning, most of us, as hypersubjective speakers, seek instead to double down on personal meaning, eschewing many opportunities for shared meaning creation.
At this point, we have established the problem of knowledge in post-contextual hyperreality. Without the stability of meaning due to untrustworthy forms of expression and questionable contexts, how can we qualify anything as knowledge?
To answer this question, we can examine the Christopher Nolan’s Inception as an example of hyperreality.
1.3 Hyperreal Feedback
Inception’s main feature is a generated simulation, in the form of dreams. Additionally, the premise of the movie requires altering people’s sensemaking so that they change their behavior. The movie is literally about implementing psychotechnology for personal gain. This consideration allows us to examine an empirical question: How can a non-event in a fake reality result in a real change?
The answer, of course, is feedback (given in the section title). Let’s draw this out.
The first scene in the movie lays the groundwork that we should accept that produced/dreamed events can change one’s reality. The struggle in the movie centers on an internal dilemma within the protagonist: Can Cobb change his own reality (so he can go home and see his kids) — by changing someone else’s reality in a simulation?
We get that Cobb is good at what he does. We also see is that his own subconscious is fragmented and unreliable. He can’t control his own unconscious even if he can manipulate another’s. Cobb’s unconscious is littered with thought-forms seeking to circumvent any dream world he is in. His dead wife Mal appears unpredictably, and a train runs unexpectedly throughout multiple scenes. In the sequence below, Cobb reveals to Ariadne that he dives into his unconscious to indulge in those uncontrollable thought-forms.
With all these different layers, at this point, we need some additional framework with which to consider the events of Inception.
Throughout this article, I’ve been using the split of form, expression, and content from the linguist Louis Hjelmslev. His organizational approach is explored by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A 1000 Plateaus. In particular, one of the metaphors Deleuze and Guattari use examines our sensemaking as layers of embedded signification, in a kind of geological philosophy. This has a parallel with Inception in that the critical subject of the inception requires a deep plant. The plot of the movie: heroes of Inception must dive three layers deep into the unconscious of one Robert Fischer planting a seed in the dream to make him think to divest his father’s empire (instead of continuing it).
Deleuze and Guattari give a simplified form of their metaphor through the figure of the double articulation, where the first layer provides the material for the second layer to expressively format.
[Louis Hjelmslev, the Danish linguist] used the term matter for […] the informed, unorganized, nonstratified, or destratified body and all its flows: subatomic and submolecular particles, pure intensities, prevital and prephysical free singularities. He used the term content for formed matters […]: substance, insofar as these matters are “chosen,” and form, insofar as they are chosen in a certain order (substance and form of content). He used the term expression for functional structures, which would also have to be considered from two points of view: the organization of their own specific form, and substances insofar as they form compounds (form and content of expression). […] The first articulation concerns content, the second expression. The distinction between the two articulations is not between forms and substances but between content and expression, expression having just as much substance as content and content just as much form as expression.
Deleuze and Guattari go further on and use the double articulation to examine multiple strata of human knowledge, suggesting that the manner in which humans interrelate meaning is reflective of the way in which words in relationships are conceptualizable.
Returning to Inception, we can see the interplay between form and content. Between the two dreams of Fischer and Cobb’s wife Mal we have the same basic first content:
- Robert Fischer, heir’s content: a pinwheel
- Mal, Cobb’s wife’s content: a top
Both dreams have the same second layer, a safe to be unlocked, metaphorically, hidden in the deep unconscious of each.
Significantly, the safe is the form of expression for the content of both dreams to be recognizable to the viewer as kept treasure.
The planted inception also has a content whose substance is the meaning for each dreamer:
- Robert Fischer’s substance: Dad loves me, for me, so I should pursue my own dreams (and dissolve the company)
- Mal’s substance: Reality isn’t real therefore I should try to wake up (and kill myself).
This has a nice symmetry. Note that the lesson Cobb learns from his wife’s inception is that, while working, it also backfired. His plant was too general. Mal not only rejects the dreamworld but also the real one.
The tragedy of Mal’s suicide not only highlights what is at stake with inception (dream manipulation) but it also emphasizes the central question in Inception. While real agency is given, in that Cobb gets paid good money for doing inceptions, the question remains, if Cobb is able to make the impossible happen for his clients, then will Cobb change circumstances in his life?
The ambiguity at the end underscores this through Nolan’s concise but terse cinematography.
Cobb enters his client’s dream world, as shown by the endlessly spinning top. With this certainty that he is in a dream, he convinces his client to wake up. Thus the spinning top becomes a clue as to whether or not we should accept a scene. In the last scene if the movie, after Cobb rushes to his children, we see the spinning top foregrounded, suggesting that Cobb is still in a dream.
By planting in his wife’s mind that reality isn’t real — Nolan simultaneously implants in the audience, supported by the expression of cinematography, that all scenes are equally questionable. This rigidity of the movie’s repertoire of presentation helps undercut our sense of what is real when Nolan switches us to a dream sequence through a cut even while Cobb’s voice narrates, bridging real and dream sequences (this happens at about 1:39 in the video below).
In under one continual narration, presumably, the scene is real before it’s a dream, we are without any indication of the switch to dreaming. How then, can we know, at the end of the movie, that Cobb gets to see his real kids, that he isn’t still lost among the thought-forms of his own unconscious? How can we know that any scene is real, that it counts?
The answer in Inception is the same answer for hyperreality: knowing requires some objective measure, a totem. The top in Inception serves as an objective measure because, in a dream, the top can spin indefinitely whereas, in real life, the top will fall whether you want it to or not.
By using his dead wife’s totem, that he switched, Cobb inadvertently implants the same suggestion in his own mind, that reality is not real. His struggle with this thought is exemplified by his unstable unconscious (whenever he is dreaming) and the use of his wife’s stolen totem. By taking her totem, Cobb has stolen her sense of reality, which he now relies on to understand what is or isn’t real. This is why his unconscious is messed up (dependent on his dead wife) but also because he wants to wake up. He wants his nightmare to end, so he can see his children again.
The end of inception, where Cobb no longer relies on the top, suggests that Cobb stops caring about what is real or fake. He lives in the moment; his kids are enough.
The use of the totem in the last scene is key. Knowledge must be tested by action, as only objective feedback verifies what is real, where the real is a condition that is the same no matter what we want it to be. Nolan ends the movie, underscoring the importance of feedback by not allowing the audience verification of reality. We do not get to see the top fall.
This external standard, this totem, is built into the scientific method. The result of experiments, by independent scientists, acts as an objective measure, an event that cannot be mutated by an experimenter’s self-deception. In a real sense, the need for objective measures, as with science, signifies how human psychology is mutable. We aren’t just vulnerable to hyperreal expressions, we are vulnerable to all kinds of suggestive sensemaking.
Hyperreal events may be non-events, that is, solely originating in the form of hyperreal expressions, but as psychotechnologies, they can deceive as hyperreality can be endlessly manufactured. (Recall Chomsky’s manufacturing consent.)
The take away from this section is thus:
Hyperreality events can be solely formulated in hyperreality, a non-event like inception within a dream. However, there may be real consequences but only if that consequence appears across multiple dimensions. Thus, knowledge in hyperreality is suspect unless its effect is verified through other domains.
Like the last scene with the spinning top in Inception, if we cannot trust our basis, we become unsure as to whether or not we have knowledge that is actionable or if we are mistaking a simulation for the real thing.
This is the problem with hypersubjective speakers. The basis they often choose in order to navigate post-contextual situations is determined by their own internal measure rather than determined from pragmatic needs dependent on an exterior context.
When it comes to higher mathematics this invariance is often the criteria for determining whether or not a mathematician has found a new domain.
Regardless of the axioms of a particular domain, invariant relationships throughout multiple domains are how mathematics is able to systematize its considerations.
Take for example soft logic and numbers. In the referenced paper, after basic moves are explained geometrically, with graphs, algebraic formulations are given that lay bare the relationships so that this new domain of mathematics is mappable to other, more familiar domains. Although soft logic has 0+ and 0-, among other interesting properties, the invariant relationships (identity, commutability, distributive property, and so on) when found, connect soft logic to mathematics as a whole (with ring theory, set theory, groups and so on) in a deep synthesis.
What is interesting about each domain of sensemaking is that there can often be isomorphisms between content and expression, where sometimes a specific expression can be content at a deeper stratum of abstraction (such as with chess, programming, or language/logic games). An example of this linguistically would be onomatopoeic words, like cuckoo and hiccup. These words appear to be invariant because the meaning of the sound is the word, but there is no guarantee that such relationships will prove to be identical at other strata, as hiccup can be someone’s nickname, or it can be an adjective as in “an accident”.
As mentioned before, the key is invariant feedback. An action in one domain needs to correlate with a result in another domain, fulfilling the intention of the original action.
Only then can we find knowledge. The next section follows with an exploration of how this specifically works.
2 The Invariance of Thought-Forms
We’ve already established a few forms of invariance. Hyperreal expression is invariant in that it is dependent on reproduced forms from underlying technologies. Additionally, there is invariance between forms, such as when the same phenomena map throughout multiple domains in a verifiable, actionable manner.
Regardless of variance, events and non-events exist, as facts within the domains they occur. However, facts don’t always mean what people want them to mean, as the same event can be understood from any basis.
What is needed in the digestion of hyperreal events is not the naked (sincere) acceptance of the meanings of hyperreal simulacra. Hyperreal media has already subverted our expectations as to what is real, as the production of simulacra, on the level of hyperreality, is indistinguishable from the real. What is needed is to understand the level of expression that constitutes a given thought-form, in order to be sensitive to how it is used. See the video below for an example of hyperreal production.
The takeaway from this video is that fast-food restaurants are simulating a different dining experience, through presentation and design of eating environments. They can be successful in competing for the changing expectations from their core customers, even if their menus have not changed. Once fast-food consumers have adopted a different thought-form, so the fast-food industry meets those expectations through hyperreal simulation in order to retain customers. Perhaps hyperreal simulation is cheaper than changing their supply chains, and food preparation procedures. Or perhaps not, as that is the subject for a different video and a different article.
Incidentally, this accelerated change of hyperreal expressions due to capitalist competition is why every decade is so different from the last. Baudrillard writes
Whence the characteristic hysteria of our times: that of the production and reproduction of the real. The other production, that of values and commodities, that of the belle epoque of political economy, has for a long time had no specific meaning. What every society looks for in continuing to produce, and to overproduce is to restore the real that escapes it. That is why today this “material” production is that of the hyperreal itself. [Hyperreality] retains all the features, the whole discourse of traditional production, but it is no longer anything but its scaled-down refraction […]. Thus everywhere the hyperrealism of simulation is translated by the hallucinatory resemblance of the real to itself.
We can relay this quote back to the video on fast-food restaurants. Customers tire of the garish 70’s and 80’s fast-food style, wanting something more real. Fast food restaurants remake themselves in order to restore the “real food” that had escaped their overproduced hyperrealisms. One imagines that in 2040 fast-food restaurants will change again, to signify yet again how it is that they continue to present real value, even while they may dance in hyperreal production with little to no menu changes.
Our knowledge today primarily comes through hyperreal forms of expression. We relate to the content given the modality of expression as a thought-form. If we try to circumvent hyperreal forms, we end up verifying those expressions as often, simulacra have a fidelity based on appearance.
If hyperreality cannot serve us because the singularity of its expression offers a rigidity of production — that its expression is regardless of the veracity of its content — then we must turn to another angle to assess these forms.
2.1 Finding Invariance
Hyperreality is difficult to understand for two main reasons. The first reason is that most of us grew up in a hyperreal environment, so we are unaware of how to understand phenomena differently. The second reason is that the Western tradition often considered truth as synonymous with true content, that is, if one has the correct content then one has reality.
We’ve already explored the implications of the first reason above. This second reason is now the subject of this section.
Accurate content is not the only to get a handle on what is salient. For example, Mary Catherine Bateson explains, in this article, that Greek mythology mapped the seasons onto family relationships so less scientific people could have a way of understanding how to behave according to the weather. Traditionally, narrative acts as a psychotechnology to symbolically map phenomena.
Narrative, centered on the constraints of human behavior, was often the way for ancient peoples to understand how to live. This form of thinking continues today. For instance, Christianity produces markers of divine presence (in Church and through rituals) as a way for followers to calibrate their salience landscape according to Christian morals. The argument, as it often went is that if one was receptive to the divine presence of Jesus, then one could attain the desired benefits. The answer given is often grounded on having the correct content. In this case, the content is Jesus, even if the lesson of being a good person is expressed through his teachings, and not necessarily through feeling his presence.
This centering on content is not how hyperreality works, but this content-centered approach is heavily assumed in Western thinking.
For instance, Deirdre N. McCloskey and Stephen Thomas Ziliak, in The Cult of Statistical Significance, examine how the human desire to see value in rareness can be used to badly interpret statistical data through the overemphasis on p values.
Likewise, in logic, the assumption is that determining truth requires the correct truth values. The configuring forms given in logic (conjunction, disjunction, triple bar) are assumed to be neutral.
Focusing unduly on content as bearing truth will yield a misconception about what constitutes the radical revolution of science. For instance, Aristotle is often thought of as the founder of science because he provided an extensive basis for natural philosophy. In some deeper sense, however, Aristotle is only a taxonomist.
Carl Sagan is correct in nominating Thales, an earlier Greek philosopher, as the founder of science. Yet if we focus on the content of Thales, then we would miss the revolution Thales fostered. Thales thought everything was made of water: “Water is the first principle of everything.” (Of course, Aristotle got much content wrong as well; such as his examination of the elements).
Rather, Thales is the founder of science, because Thales argued for the uncoupling of natural causes from human morality/religion. Thales proposed that natural phenomena worked off of neutral (amoral) mechanisms. This ran counter to the ideas of his contemporaries, who thought that one’s moral behavior determined natural phenomenon. Thales’ contemporaries, for instance, thought that bad weather resulted from immoral behavior.
Thales was only wrong about the mechanism (as everything is not water). Thales was, more significantly, right to try to find a non-human mechanism for natural occurrences. This search for an amoral mechanism behind natural phenomena is what makes science so unique in the human disciplines.
There is much value in having semantic content that matches actual material, as science does foster actionable knowledge in the form of technology. For instance, understanding our relationship to oxygen allows us to save lives. Other semantic content systems, such as alchemy, will not yield results like science because alchemic content does not provide relevant information for manipulating matter. In this sense, knowledge is the recognition of invariant relationships. Yet, functionally, for most humans, scientific approaches alone cannot yield meaningful knowledge in the sense that much of the knowledge generated by science is fairly trivial (e.g., how hot is the sun). Human beings are very capable of making meaning in ways that have non-literal content that nonetheless can effectively address concerns (see the Greek mythology example above).
For humans to recognize knowledge is tricky, as our attention may not make apparent relationships we have. Our salience landscape may focus our attention on the wrong phenomena or on the wrong aspects of phenomena. Nonetheless, we do acquire knowledge, by forming invariant relationships in our salience landscape due to our interpersonal experiences.
For instance, in Complexity of the Self, neuropsychiatrist Vittorio Guidano provides a cognitive procedural systemic model of development. As humans grow they first acquire emotional awareness through social interactions, which develop into scripts that manage emotions. Guidano writes
In a systems/process-oriented approach, early experiences are crucial insofar as they establish children’s first emotional and conceptual schemata that allow an early stable representation of self and the world. These representational patterns, in turn, become the “criterion images” against which the continuous stimulus inflow is matched and ordered. Essentially they regulate the unfolding of later lifespan developmental steps without determining them. To use a metaphor that adequately summarizes these concepts, we could say that at the end of the preschool period, a “developmental pathway” (Bowlby, 1973) emerges that by no means determines the “destination” or the “map” of the “journey” just begun, but still supplies an influential “guide” for its becoming.
Central to the development of humans is looped experiences whereby continual feedback from family members, peers, and authority figures provides the basis for the creation of emotional schemata, salience landscapes, and general awareness each human uses to construct their identity and place in the universe. Guidano proposes that epistemology should be considered a form of psychology as each child must develop how they know the world from the repetition of contextualized experiences.
Specifically, our perceived identity (which for us corresponds to the sense of reality itself) finds in the presence of others a necessary foundation for its existence, and at the same time, in the differentiation from others, discovers the equally necessary foundation for its experiencing. There, in the dynamic point of intersection of the opponent regulation between an outward tendency to perceive the wholes of which we are a part, and an inward tendency to perceive the parts that make us a whole (Sameroff, 1982) we can trance the sense of our identity and uniqueness.
This development of humans in stages through a deepening of socialization is analogous with systems like Freud and Jung as psychoanalysis provides narrative forms that trace human development. However, where Guidano differs from his predecessors is that Guidano proposes a formal relationship between development and pattern creation, one that is not grounded on universalized content such as phallic symbols or archetypes.
Instead, for Guidano, the expressed repetition of significant contextualized emotional experiences provides the basis for the creation of knowledge patterns. As we develop, our tacit forms of knowing developed earlier in life give way to abstracted concepts of explicit knowledge. This development depends on how we perceive our experiences being expressed to us.
The deeper rules appear in the subject’s mental processing in analogical code with which tacit knowledge is generally expressed. Therefore, they essentially take the form of nonverbal and emotionally charged representations […] phenomenologically experienced as […] “intuitions” (Pope & Singer, 1980; Singer, 1974). Such content may more or less reverberate in the individual’s internal representations and initially may not be considered particularly meaningful experiences, especially since they usually assume quite different forms even in a single day.
Since any tacit assumption must pass through personal identity to be introduced into representational models, awareness is a facilitating condition for converting tacit knowledge into beliefs and thought procedures (Airenti et al., 1982a, 1982b). Particularly, the quality of self-awareness — expressed by the corresponding attitudes towards oneself — dramatically influences the shift to a metalevel of knowledge presentation and the final result of a deep change process. A deep oscillative process may produce different consequences depending on whether it represents a progressive or regressive shift in the orthogenetic progression of an individual lifespan.
The problem inherent in this epistemological development of identity lies in the lack of calibrated (unbiased) feedback from the environment. Single experiences, no matter how intense, do not lend themselves to being critical in development. Context acts as the glue that solidifies meaning. The nature of contextualized intense emotional experiences creates knowledge in the form of scripted behaviors that preserve meaning for future encounters. Scripted/expected behaviors are analogous to the form of expression, bearing the intensity of the emotional content that then colors future events so people begin to understand who they are in the world and form expectations as to what the world around them is like.
All in all, there is no easy way for a child to understand if their experience is dysfunctional or not because a developing awareness only focuses on aspects of their experience that they can contextualize.
This free-form association through critical emotional context is why the psychotechnology of narratives is so prevalent in human culture. Going back to ancient Greek mythology, utilizing familiar tropes, like family, allows uneducated people to acquire a working rule of thumb for managing seasonal changes. Likewise speaking about family tropes or personality archetypes does the same. These approaches do not function because they have appropriate content, they function because they can invoke key relationships within our epistemological development for us to explicitly unravel as relationships that can establish meaning. Therapy works by giving us the awareness to choose how to self-regulate. In a similar way, astrology, tarot, and other divinations may enable some in-direct access to calibrating our self-regulation.
Likewise, hyperreality can reconfigure our psychological make-up, by altering our awareness impacting our identity, politics, and consumer activities through the repetition of expressive forms. For instance, exchanges in social media are limited due to the superficial forms of interaction. From personal observation, I’ve seen people develop a deep aversion to what they perceive as incoherent political messaging, as such messaging can trigger them in ways they do not fully understand. The end result is the demonization of their peers due to an inability to emotionally process what appears to be a badly reasoned difference of opinion. Perhaps this happens because they lack appropriate scripts for dealing with how to navigate those kinds of situations, as hyperreal encounters can be of completely novel relationships.
Because humans develop a sense of self through patterns, our malleability is vulnerable to hyperreal technology’s bombardment of reproducible simulations.
With this in mind, we can turn towards outlining a psychotechnology that can bring the tacit experiences we are unconsciously molded into explicit awareness for consideration.
2.2 The Meaning of Thought-Forms
We can find at least one method of considering the formation of tacit knowledge from Buddhism.
In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts writes
Western idealists have begun to philosophize from a world consisting of mind (or spirit), form, and matter, whereas the Buddhist have begun to philosophize from a world of mind and form.
The Yogacara does not, therefore, discuss relations of forms of matter to mind; it discusses the relation of forms to mind, and concludes that they are forms of mind.
Buddhism’s focus on thought-forms is to counteract the rigid psychotechnologies developed during the Axial Age.
The transition from nomadic behaviors to settlements due to agriculture allowed the city-state to emerge. With the city-state, great Empires formed consisting of a large number of strangers. These Empires had to develop psychotechnology to allow strangers a way of getting along. The psychotechnologies developed included writing, bureaucracy, legalization, citizenship, organized religion, and statehood. These psychotechnologies supported the formation of institutions. (We already mentioned some such institutional psychotechnologies previously, like the Code of Hammurabi and Legalism/Confucianism earlier.)
As psychotechnologies mold people’s psychology and identity, escaping the rigid thinking fostered by these psychotechnologies led to a wave of spiritual psychotechnologies. These psychotechnologies of liberation focus on opening one’s thought-forms and include Buddhism, Christianity, and the Socratic method.
Buddhism spread quickly in India and China as both regions are agriculturally rich and can support large numbers of people. Due to population density, both areas developed rigid psychotechnologies, Hinduism, and Confucianism, respectively. Buddhism was adopted by people to bring some relief from the rigid hierarchies that oppressed them.
Buddhism’s focus on thought-forms did not lend itself to existential thinking (i.e., the propositional content-based thinking that Western Philosophy has developed). Many of Buddha’s parables, such as the Parable of the Poison Arrow explicitly emphasizes how irrelevant questions about existence are when one is faced with pragmatic matters (such as being poisoned). In the parable, Buddha likens his teaching to removing a poisoned arrow. The urgency and toxicity of the arrow contrast with the relief we could get following Buddha’s teachings. Consequently, Buddha’s teachings are not concerned with history or correct labeling. Instead, his practices are designed to undo the meaning of certain experiences by bringing to explicit awareness of the underlying mental forms.
Psychotherapies like psychoanalysis perform similar actions like Buddhism but with different techniques and goals.
- Psychotherapies analyze personal history and realign the mechanisms that govern self-image with the stated goal of adjusting one’s self-image and behavior so that it functions in society.
- Buddhism uses wordlessness, mental puzzles (like koans and riddles), meditation, chanting, yoga, and other martial arts to liberate oneself from the undue influence of mental thought-forms.
While Buddhism eventually became institutionalized in East Asia, and in some sense, supplementing other institutional psychotechnologies, the Buddha’s insight into the nature of mental forms is revolutionary.
This revolutionary work connects to much contemporary psychology, including Guidano’s work, supporting the conjecture that humans develop scripts and a world view via personal and emotional experience.
Conversely, alteration of the mental thought-forms that constitute scripts and other rigid significations can change people’s salience landscape, letting them co-create how they co-exist and participate in the world.
Our sense of meaning develops from the crystalization of thought-forms. Sometimes those thought-forms are used to organize procedures, such as with traditional medicine, marriage rituals, and other social functions. These cultural procedures serve many non-literal purposes. While the narrative supporting the function may be mythological or allegorical — nonsense from a scientific viewpoint — the proscription of the behavior can work to heal people, maintain social bonds, and assist in the gathering of resources even if the content is not literally true.
The form of expression in culture is the translation of content into action. The content may be organized in a narrative form familiar to the speakers (such as in a family tree) but tradition also dictates the behaviors people must take in order to respond to and express/fulfill the narrative.
In this way, technology and science directly compete with the cultural thought-forms that enable people to embody traditional communities with traditional resource and labor distributions. The degradation of traditional culture is due to the amount of success capitalism has, as in the short term, technology and science give better results as it deals directly with the truth of matter and energy. For instance, a chemical engineer needs literal content in order to engineer desirable results. Utilizing an alchemical content that is partially metaphoric will yield undesirable results as that content is literally nonsense (nonsense, in the context of the engineer’s concerns). This contrast with scientific content helped make less salient cultural forms of knowing, doing, and being — along with more traditional narrative thought-forms.
In this way, thought-forms can propagate with true (literal) or false (non-literal) content. With non-literal content, people may not be able to directly describe what they are doing, but they have an awareness of what moves are available within the non-literal content’s form of expression. With literal content, people can have an understanding of what they are doing but may struggle to decide what to do. One of science’s blindspots is its emphasis on content as the sole bearer of truth. Since humans naturally operate on different levels of reasoning, including relationships that are not content-based, a STEM view that only focuses on true content will be unable to grok a coherent sense of how hyperreality works, or what post-structuralism and post-modernism are really rejecting from modernism.
Expression alone cannot only push true content. While technology provides problems that, in theory, technology could solve, technology can only, at most, generate hyperreality — a record/simulation of the real. As the record/simulation will always be independent of what it refers to, the record may be manipulated. Likewise, as the form of expression is independent of veracity, a technological form cannot be used to determine the truth of its content (there can be no machine algorithm that filters out fake news).
Buddhism however, is not the only approach to examining thought-forms. Some other approaches which spell out the basic building blocks of symbolic reasoning include:
- George Lakoff, a cognitive psychologist, provides neurological evidence of that the adaptation of certain forms of presentation is correlated with political alignment in his book The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain
- Paul Ricoeur, a philosopher of rhetoric, examines how metaphors are more basic than copulas. He speculates that the use of metaphors is necessary for the establishment of awareness and meaning in his book The Rule of Metaphor.
- Fredrick Nietzsche, a philosopher of philology, critiques cultural content by mining how culture expresses that content to generate verisimilitude in his book Genealogy of Morals.
- Michael Foucault, a philosopher, utilizes a Nietzschean genealogical approach to explore how epistemes both construct and establish fields of meaning, (including science and economics) in his book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.
Beyond these examples, other methods, such as semiotics, philosophy, some religious teachings like those of Jesus, Sufism, and hermeneutics (to name a few) can give one agency to realign one’s thought-forms to different bases.
What I want to point to here is that psychotechnologies that loosen one’s reliance on thought-forms to determine meaning come in all kinds of packages, often with their own historic/narrative justifications. For example, the teachings of Jesus work as this kind of psychotechnology when they help you disassemble some fixed modality of meaning-making. The impact of his parables is not necessarily independent of the relationships of the characters (such as when Jesus asked Peter if he loved Peter, once for each time when Peter denied knowing Jesus) but the lessons are independent of whether or not the parables accurately account for what really happened.
In this sense, mindfulness practice and Buddhism are closer to a science in that these practices’ content aligns with the awareness of one’s salience landscape than practices that focus on the veracity of external content to provide guidance for one’s salience landscape (such practices may include Freudian psychoanalysis and astrology).
Psychotechnologies, however, do not only promote a loosening of one’s salience landscape.
As we are describing a psychotechnology to loosen one’s reliance on the form of expression in hyperreality, we also need a psychotechnology that will strengthen the connections between people, so they can create coherency.
2.3 The Invariance of Salience Landscapes
As psychotechnology that can loosen one’s salience landscape comes in all shapes and sizes, so do psychotechnologies that create rigid dependencies in one’s salience landscape.
One example of a rigid psychotechnology is Confucianism. During his lifetime, due to warmongering that had been happening for hundreds of years, Confucius assessed that the social body was disharmonious because people had no idea who was in charge. Thus, Confucius developed a psychotechnology that would automatically establish a pecking order from the Emperor to the youngest newborn of the lowest family. Under Confucianism, no two people meeting for the first time could not objectively decide who should have the authority. Essentially Confucianism solved the problem of the Warring States by developing a psychotechnology to calibrate human relationships. This psychotechnology was so successful it allowed the largest agricultural population to coexist in relative peace (when compared with Europe) for over two millennia.
For instance, Europeans may consider Rome their cultural ancestors but no one today calls themselves Romans. The Chinese still refer to themselves as Han, in reference to the culture/government created by the First Emperor of China in 221 BCE.
Despite this success, Confucianism is too dogmatic and rigid to successfully navigate hyperreality today, as hyperreality is an ambiguous mixture of context, culture, need, and expectation. After all Confucianism hasn’t really even survived capitalism.
There are some rigid thought-forms that have persisted today. Two common rigid thought-forms include
- the assumption that the classification of phenomenon dictates meaning. For example, Republicans have called many, including former Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders a communist as a way of dismissing them
- the attribution that individuals are morally upright because of the position they hold and therefore, but also circularly, worthy of their position of authority. For example, someone might assume that the Pope is a good man because he is the Pope.
In general, ideas that distinguish good from bad dependent on a rigid and absolute formula will create rigidities in one’s salience landscape. Notice that the form of connection is the issue; not the content of expression. Thus, Buddhism, with an intention aimed at loosening one’s salience landscape can also paradoxically create rigidities, which is why in East Asian countries, Buddhism could become an institution.
Because of how humans create meaning, through the form of expression, any psychotechnology can be used to produce opposite results. Psychotechnologies of liberation can be used to promote personal illusions.
Despite our focus on psychotechnologies, rigid salience landscapes don’t always form from psychotechnologies, as human cognition can become stuck in loops (such as with obsessive-compulsive disorder).
An interesting example of a rigid salience landscape is conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories parrot the Western emphasis on content as having meaning as conspiracy theorists often look for a smoking gun as if things have their meaning as part of their existential constitution. That smoking gun is then perceived as being embedded in a network of very rigid relationships whose inevitable meaning expresses some revelation in the world. What is confusing about conspiracy theories is that the meaning behind the theory is separate from the truth, as conspiracy theories may be true or not true; meaningful or not meaningful. Just because something is a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean that theory is false. Conspiracies do exist in the world.
In this way, conspiracy theories work more like ancient mythologies in that they provide a narrative justification to explain some kind of phenomena (like COVID-19, or Russian election interference). Conspiracy theories often express responsibility for anxiety by projecting responsibility for the situation on a party that is deemed conspiratory.
Recall that a salience landscape is a collection of selected cues underlying the formation of personal orientation (socially and at the world at large). How a salience landscape develops depends on whatever patterns are recognized as crucial. Guidano writes
The early developmental array of nuclear scripts, through the unfolding of emotional differentiation and cognitive growth, becomes increasingly articulated into personal meaning — that is, one’s way of coding reality so as to find evidence for one’s very sense of self and the world in everyday experience.
Conspiracy theory interestingly codifies one’s self and the world in a specific relationship in order to (pre-)determine the meanings behind phenomena. As phenomena are successfully navigated so a script is reinforced. However, with the combination of conspiracy theories and hyperreal capitalism, feedback may not be forthcoming, or the speaker may not be literate enough to understand the feedback they receive. Conspiracy theories are especially difficult to debunk for believers because the believer’s salience landscape so efficiently filters unwanted meaning that the believer only experiences the desired meaning. Alternate understandings may not be possible unless the believer loosens their thought-forms.
In this way, we see how the feedback of actionable relationships is both important to psychological/cognitive development and for the discovery of knowledge in hyperreality and the sciences.
Don’t get me wrong. Science, religion, philosophy, and other approaches are all very different. But what they all have in common is each requires feedback of intentional action — that the results match the intention — in order to filter out meaningless information. As inquiries for science may not be expressible in other forms, like Buddhism or philosophy, testing for knowledge requires knowing how to express the intention so that a result is verifiable.
This relationship between feedback and knowledge as actionable and satisfiable are the parameters for developing knowledge.
Feedback verifies knowledge, as a matter of symbolic content. Satisfaction verifies action, as a matter of expressive form/function/behavior/intention.
With these relationships in mind, we can develop or find psychotechnologies that can bring about social cohesion. Our social body is fragmented as hyperreality has disrupted social organization. Due to the ambiguity of context, meaning must be created according to shared pragmatic concerns.
Since one of the most basic concerns is social fragmentation, for the rest of the article, let us examine this issue.
As stated in detail throughout this series, social fragmentation is due to an abundance of psychotechnologies operating at cross purposes. There is no real way of eliminating these psychotechnologies, as there are innumerable records (books, media, cultural and historical reference) providing various sums of human knowledge. The amount of sensemaking alternatives is overwhelming. Attempting to sort it out so that we can use it if/when we need it is near impossible as technologies continue to develop and context continues to be modified by events.
Instead of focusing on the informational content (i.e., valid content as the problem is often assumed by classical Western paradigms), let us instead focus on the core reason as to why social fragmentation occurs (i.e., what is the problem).
Social fragmentation occurs when people cannot agree on how to get along. Regardless of a shared pragmatic context, non-agreement happens in large part because people often do not know how to express their intentions in a way that is congruent with one another.
In this way, the problem of social fragmentation isn’t a matter of knowledge, rather the problem is a structural-functional issue with developing human relationships.
3 The Invariance of Relationships
As stated earlier in this article, learning and doing are both largely based on the relationships we have with others.
- The earliest institutional psychotechnology was developed so that people could work together to extract resources in support of vast empires.
- Most of our knowledge is not from direct personal experience. We each don’t have to be able to independently develop technology and knowledge to be able to benefit from it. Most of it is passed to us down anonymously from people who died long ago.
In this way, human relationships form the basic fabric of social order, both for our ability to have a functional economy and for us to have a community of peers we can rely on.
Although hyperreality changes our sense of the world, reconfiguring not only how we know the world but also how we collectively organize, hyperreality lacks the verifiability of feedback. Hyperreal interactions generally do not enable people to be accountable for their actions. Unlike in-person relationships, which have existed for longer than there have been people, online relationships, even between human and machine, have almost no sense of shared concern or responsibility. This is true for most online communities, although established ones will rely on heavy community stakeholders (administrators, moderators that are mutually respected) to manually police behavior. Even still, often within policed online communities, people may not share concerns so that the meaning established is weak or ambiguous for the group.
In this way, defragmenting the social body would require
- improved feedback from others
- establishing a pragmatic sense of shared concern
Remember, how long it took for people to paradoxically build up a wariness about strangers or establish a wariness about buying merchandise on the internet? Rather than waiting for context to be established, the appropriate psychotechnology will calibrate human attention on the nature of specific interactions so that people can build relationships pragmatically instead of relying on some emergent “standard” of context. (Given the speed of technological development, emerging standards will be often disrupted before they can be adopted as standards.)
Guidano considers human development as tacitly epistemological. In our quest to develop meaning, we observe, act, and get feedback about our actions. Humans are preeminently pragmatic. He writes
consider a human being as not only a knowing system, but also as a historical knowing system, the immediate methodological consequence is that a systems approach should employ a lifespan development perspective. This is because the systemic coherence of any self-organizing unit can be understood only by taking into consideration the system’s staring boundary conditions and its subsequent developmental pathway.
Hyperreality’s expressive form renders our traditional scripts at least partially distorted. Additionally, hyperreality lacks a good feedback mechanism for us to develop shared concerns. Developing shared concerns requires establishing facts, even if the meaning behind those facts is open to interpretation.
One relevant psychotechnology that handles all of these concerns was presented to me by thinking and development partner, David Bookout who is building ( effetti.co ). David’s long time work has revolved around business process design using a foundational framework, a cybernetics model invented by Fernando Flores. Earlier as Chile’s Finance Minister, Flores developed, Cybersyn a decision support system aimed at managing the national economy.
Influenced by Martin Heidegger, Humberto Maturana, John Austin, and others Flores developed a commitment based coordination system, which can be applied to literally any human interaction. The framework incorporating a set of concerns Flores termed “Recurring Domains of Human Concern” which enables users to get clear on both their own concerns in situations as well as others. The shared concerns are the basis from which real solutions can be designed.
The system is exceedingly simple as well as extremely versatile as it helps establish a pattern to calibrate our salient landscape so that we can focus on the pragmatic concerns of those who form the immediate context with us.
3.1 Fernando Flores & THE CODE for Human Interactivity.
Bookout’s commitment to both promoting Flores and building on his model came from successes in a number of domains before he was able to actually meet and work with Flores himself. Coordinating action via communication entails a specific language set within any native language. Flores’ model breaks conversations into different kinds of speech acts including consideration for how to express those speech acts for maximum biochemical connection with our conversation partners.
Human interactivity naturally includes reciprocal loops, which encapsulate interaction by establishing a basis for shared concern for feedback regarding the mutually assessed quality of the interaction.
The ability to establish shared concern as a way to pragmatically direct action is the creation of meaningful meaning.
The reciprocal loop expresses the second requirement for knowledge earlier explored in this article. With the loop, the action is verified, and satisfaction is established, or the actors go through another round to establishing a sequence to get to satisfaction.
Pictured below is what the loop looks like with a sales cycle.
Sales consist of offers and requests. Sales cycles have two loops. The first half of the cycle, the Fulfillment Loop, establishes the conditions of satisfaction for the cycle to need to end. The second half the cycle, the Reciprocation Loop, closes the cycle out with the final payment for the action. One example might look like this:
This second image has the boxes filled out for a simple transaction, an oil change. Bookout’s claim would be that all interactions — from those between dog owners and their pets to exchanges between friends to those of user and program — contain offers and requests and can be mapped to this model, including what he calls “Conversational Energy” which can be both observed and measured.
A huge area for misunderstanding is the lack of clarity as to what constitutes the conditions of satisfaction. A common sitcom situation involves one character mistaking another character’s condition for satisfaction, perhaps misunderstanding a comment.
Of course, not all people have a salience landscape that focuses on communication as a loop. Often people are overly concerned with their own satisfaction, or they mistake how they should understand what is said.
Understanding how one should understand a speech act is equivalent to understanding the form of expression. The content of a speech act consists of the words. Flores’ reconfiguration of what basic speech acts are into these basic types improves on John Austen’s work in that Austen only focused on certain kinds of linguistic moves as acts.
Flores’ conclusion that all speech is a speech act stems from a basic insight: All speech is about coordination. Since all speech is related to coordinating, essentially all speech can be understood in terms of establishing the ground for coordination or in terms of the management of coordination.
What follows next are the speech acts themselves, followed by some contextual considerations when making speech acts.
3.1.1 The Content of Speech Acts
The speech acts are specific moves, often either consisting solely of information or a combination of information and coordination.
- Requests. Requests are not commands. They are inquiries to others for assistance. Often successful requests also give a rationale that positions the request against a background of shared concern for the requester and requestee. — Flores
- Declarations. Declarations are statements that establish meaning. Often declarations require that the speaker has the authority to make the utterance. Successful declarations require that people follow. — Flores
- Promises. Promises are commitments by the speaker. A successful promise requires meeting some obligation that is promised. — Flores
- Offers. Offers are inverse promises as offers are commitments by the speaker, contingent on the acceptance of the listener. Successful offers depend on the acceptance of the listener. — Flores
- Speculations. Speculations are conjectures about some state in the world. Successful speculations depend on the engagement of the listener. — Flores
- Assertions. Assertions are statements of fact that report on the condition of the world. Assertions differ from declarations in that assertions require evidence. A successful assertion is one that establishes a condition of the world according to the agreed meaning of some evidence. — Flores
- Assessments. Assessments differ from speculations and assertions in that assessments are opinions/judgments about some activity of interest in the world. A successful assessment is one that elicits a response. — Flores
- Acknowledgment. Acknowledgment is the most basic response. A successful acknowledgment lets the other party know that their intentions have been considered. Done explicitly it enables the recipient to remain whole while reminding both parties that it is ok to be human, individually unique. Acknowledgment opens the door to rationality and co-creation. — Bookout
One of the main disruptions in communication/relationship building happens when people do not know how to distinguish between speculations, assertions, assessments, or declarations. People also get mixed up between requests, offers, and promises. For instance, if I made an assessment but expected you to treat my assessment like a declaration, that would be confusing. Likewise, people may make requests and but then treat them as promises. In any given situation there can be mistakes in communication— so that people are not sure what to expect out of others. Often people accept information given to them, say through text message or email, but ignore fulfilling the cycle by not providing good communicative responses.
Will Joel Friedman in The Grammar of Committed Action: Speaking That Brings Forth Being writes about the breakdown of communication, which is also damage to a relationship:
Breakdowns in actions using Flores’ speech acts usually result from what authors Budd and Rothstein call “linguistic viruses” that attack relationships, change the structures of the people in them, cause difficult moods, dissatisfaction and poor health. These authors propose the following ten linguistic viruses: 1) Not making requests; 2) Living with excommunicated expectations; 3) Making unclear requests; 4) Not observing the mood of your requests; 5) Promising even when you aren’t clear what was requested; 6) Not declining requests; 7) Breaking promises without taking care: undermining trust; 8) Treating assessments as facts; 9) Making assessments without rigorous grounding; and 10) Making fantasy affirmations and declarations. So-called waste in the context of commitment and relationships can be perceived as encompassing mistrust, incompetence for listening, and all else that violates the capacity to maintain relationships.
Not having clarity in communication means not having clarity in coordination or in one’s relationship. When people find language ambiguous they will become more distrustful of others. If encountered at a young age, people will also develop anxiety over how they should behave in social situations because they lack clarity on the emotional scripts they should follow.
This ambiguity in how one should embody language is a large reason why people become hypersubjective speakers. In some sense, people turn to authenticity as a way to embody what makes sense to them — a strategy for preserving meaning when trying to take care of an other’s concerns is too daunting.
3.1.2 Moods and Expression of Speech Acts
This subsection addresses aspects of speech acts that refer to an additional dimension that is not mutually exclusive of the items in the prior section. The prior section lists speech acts, some of which include information about coordination. This second section addresses the expressive style that is often overlooked when performing speech acts.
The basic awareness one needs is twofold (in the sense that there is more than one party) but it can be summed in one word: mood.
The mood of an exchange of speech acts consists of the energetic exchange underlying the speech acts. Awareness of another person’s mood will impact us as people have mirror neurons. Mirror neurons enable us to develop a model of someone else’s view of the world.
People speaking in a closed and obstinate way are likely to trigger others. Others will respond to the speaker being stubborn, either by matching the energy or by running through an emotional script that deals with stubbornness. Likewise speaking in a happy and energetic way will influence people. In this way, mood can drive the direction of a conversation regardless of how aware participants are of the mood in the conversation.
This attention to mood is examined in a book written by Gloria Flores, Fernando Flores’ daughter, Learning to Learn and the Navigation of Moods: The Meta-Skill for the Acquisition of Skills. In it, Gloria provides examples where business-minded individuals engage in team-building exercises with strangers (also in the team building program) by playing World of WarCraft. The program stipulates that the team complete certain objectives. As many such individuals have never played a multi-player game, they struggle with their sense of self as some refuse to ask for help while others are condescending. Ultimately the team members realize how their mood when interacting with others changes the conversation so that they learn to adjust behaviors. Adjusting moods let the participants learn how to interact without being triggered. Awareness of mood also let the participants step outside of themselves to discover their value in the group.
Developing an awareness of how speech acts can organize a conversation if used appropriately will lead one to become aware of moods. Individuals often have general moods that form the basic foundation for how they understand their relationship to the world.
From when we are first infants and young children, we start to develop an attitude about life. Guidano writes
It should be stressed that recognition of the self consists not only of a “cognitive” demarcation between self and nonself, but also involves an emotional attitude toward the nonself — a kind of “feeling tone” about the social world, similar to Erikson’s concept of “basic trust.” Roughly, this basic feeling tone corresponds to emotional schemata that convey the information about the social world is more or less reliable or the exception of how satisfactorily one’s needs will be met. The principle factor that determines the quality of this feeling tone is, of course, the quality of the caregrivers’ response to the infant.
Attitudes aren’t deterministic. Moods aren’t about controlling people. Moods are ways for us to engage the world. Different styles of engagement will prompt different reconfigurations of one’s salience landscape so that we may consider things in a different light.
Moods help us engage with others considering the kind of speech act we want to make. We already understand this as making a request of someone when they are in a bad mood will increase the likelihood of an unfavorable response. If we match the manner of engagement with the speech act, we will maximize the opportunity for others to receive our message in the spirit with which we give it.
This behavior cannot guarantee a favorable response. It does, however, help to present the option of their giving us a favorable response if they understand the nature of the speech act. Understanding clearly the boundaries of communication is part of what it means to respect other people.
Respect regards integrity for self and others. This means allowing others to be how they are so that they can also display their regard.
People may not agree. People can do whatever they like. After all, ideal communication isn’t about control. Communication’s purpose is to enable coordination. Coordination requires the agreement of both parties to an arrangement necessitating that both parties express themselves.
Thus, matching mood to speech act is a way to supplement speech acts, so that the expressive form of the speech act works with the content. It is in this sense that technology can also express moods, as previously expressed in this article’s examination of thought-forms in hyperreality and sensemaking.
Some additional manners for generating mood is to notice the following two considerations.
- Friends/Relationships. The energy surrounding relationship building is one that facilitates reciprocal loops. Your friends are people that take care, generously give attention, and value you as a human being while you reciprocate in kind. Maintenance of these relationships entails an attitude of care and a desire to share mutual concerns. Keeping in mind the possibility of developing a relationship with the other party encourages the other party to reciprocate. Successful friendships/relationships are ones that enable future exchanges/loops because the current exchanges/loops are ones that the participants desire to continue in the future. These are simple and not simple as it involves being able to address fundamental concerns of all humans, including to be treated with dignity and respect — which is often missing in the offer/request exchange. See this link for more information.
- Respect/Explicit acknowledgment. While Friends/Relationships is a longer-term behavior, Respect/Explicit acknowledgment is shorter-term behavior. This involves developing an attitude of gratitude when another’s attention is given. For example, consider a situation that is likely a one-time transaction. Cold calls are difficult because cold calls originate without any background of shared concern. Cold calls interrupt people — — and those people can be in very different moods. In a sense, a cold call requires being upfront about what is being said because a cold call requests the attention of the listener before the listener has any idea of what is being offered/requested. Cold calls can also employ scripts that purposefully put the answerer off guard, by playing with the mood or disallowing the listener to speak for themselves. Cold calls have a reputation of taking advantage of the answerer as with cold calls, there is little to no chance of any relationship being made. On successful cold calls, the caller and answerer both explicitly agree to some arrangement. This is made more possible when both parties feel the other would take their concerns and respect their integrity. This means that some level of trust must be established. Expressing respect and giving explicit acknowledgment is a way for parties to signal respect for the integrity of the other party. Expressing respect for another’s dignity requires a level of regard for the other party, which can shift the mood to allow both parties to be more vulnerable to each other. Vulnerability is a lowering of one’s guard so that people can begin to share their genuine concerns. Only when you know who the other party is, and where they stand, can you truly take care of their concerns and respect their integrity.
In this way, Flores and Bookout’s work is a psychotechnology as it can focus a practitioner’s salience landscape on communication. Once one’s salience landscape is altered, the value of seeing interactions in terms of speech acts is apparent, as the basic moves inherent in coordination are made more explicit.
Bookout refers to Flores’ work as a foundational framework because of its ubiquity of use and capability in terms of enabling humans a powerful way to both understand and shape interactions. There are, of course, many ways to understand interactions, with emphasis on different aspects of interaction, such as body language, the firmness of one’s handshake, and so on.
Nonetheless, having some format/script can let us begin to understand how to navigate the boundaries between people.
Bookout’s ambition to get what he calls “THE CODE for Human Interactivity” into 1Million people’s hearts, heads, and operational capacity immediately. The purpose, Bookout says “Change the language, change the World.” The courseware offered through ( effetti.co ) designed to rapidly shift the user’s perspective relative to what’s possible in conversation with others. Humans oddly, though not when considering all angles of psychotechnologies function in our Worlds have behaviorally slipped into a place wherein they have actually forgotten that it is only through language that we really begin to exist.
“We exist in language, we live through our imaginations.” — Flores/Bookout
In the next section, we will explore how the forms of expression, while creating boundaries between people, find a unique level of effectiveness for technology (and the use of technology) that generates hyperreality.
As we all embody language differently, so we all are aware of different modalities of behavior. As we change our awareness, our lives will change as we are always re-negotiating boundaries between people.
In this way, moods, in combination with speech acts, establish boundaries by engaging people’s scripts and associated salience landscapes. This engagement is significant as
- these engagements create meaning that was not present before
- these engagements are central to the meaning that one develops throughout one’s life.
The significance of the second remark recalls Victor Frankl’s account from Man’s Search for Meaning:
For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
Frankl recognizes that only through one’s relationships can the care of another be the grace of each of us. This is a significant part, if not the strongest lesson inherent in the teachings of Christ.
Often, Christ’s teaches are about care for others like the care for self. The balance between the two is the same. Jesus loves us all. As God, he has a relationship with each of us. This is not to say that the claims Christianity makes on the nature of reality have content that is necessary — but it is to acknowledge how Christianity as a psychotechnology gets us to focus on relationships as a way to understand what is right and good in the world/other people.
Guidano agrees that relationships are the boundaries for the interface of self and world. He writes
During any period of lifespan development, our ongoing sense of identity may be regarded as the emergent product of a dynamic balance between an outward tendency to perceive our being a part of the whole, and an inward tendency of percieve the wholeness of our being a part (Sameroff, 1982). This means that even in adulthood, though with greater abstraction, selfhood is made recognizable and decodeable to itself only through itneractions with others. This is because any category applied to oneself is also applied in understanding others, and conversely, any category discovered in others at once becomes recognizable and applicable to the self. In short, accepting the broader implication of the statement that self-knowledge relies on others is equivalent to acknowledging the epistemic character of attachment processes. This implies that the continuous interplay with others’ experiences — either in a direct or symbolic way — is the basic process that transforms the lifespan development of reflective self-hood ito a a spiraling, open-ended process.
Our sense of identity has never been more at stake as our post-contextual hyperreal environments offer a maximal opportunity for linguistic ambiguity. We have the opportunity to make linguistic moves every day, to appear in any way we desire. As we change who we are by acknowledging and decoding ourselves and others, so we can gain deeper understandings. That deeper understanding within a hyperreal context lets us develop more profound relationships as we find appropriate expressions in hyperreality.
As mentioned previously, a key factor in an appearance via information technology is the development of new forms of expression. Information technology is a psychotechnology only in that it introduces new conventions, new opportunities for interaction. As technology is developed with emotional flavors, so how we interface with our technology will help ground how we understand our role in the world.
Consider this clip from the anime Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, in which a sentient military tank, a Tachikoma, shares a concern with a military cyborg named Batou.
Tachikoma connects God to a concept of Dedekind’s cut. From this analysis, it decides that although analog and digital are the same in terms of organization, the lack of a true zero for digital sentience (since everything is binary) means that only analog beings can believe in God. Like a 19th-century reactionary philosopher, this Tachikoma thinks, perhaps like Slavoj Žižek, that the presence of a lost signifier (that is less than nothing like God) yields one a soul that is uniquely one’s own ghost.
Our reaction to a child-like Tachikoma might be one of irritation since as non-Japanese we may prefer to think of our machines as rigid, soulless mechanisms — not like children. We may find the feelings that are triggered by this excessive “child-like manner” irrelevant to or even distorting for our processing. However, the manner and mood of how a military tank expresses suggest that the Japanese both care for their devices like children and that the Japanese may consider their children like mechanisms, to be maintained and cared for.
To a large degree, this is how information technology works, as a presentation that suggests certain forms of processing. Once conventions for mood are established, the lowered cost of reproduction in information technology enables such memes to spread in fluidly.
Memes combine content with an expression. The simplest type is an image that expresses a mood, matched with a semantic content that is linguistic.
Often the juxtaposition of expressive emotional content with linguistic content provides a source of delight.
However, in terms of Flores/Bookout, the meme above is making a declaration as to its direct content. When digging deeper, you can see it as making an assessment of the nature of memes. In this case, the irony of it expressing itself through a meme about memes is what is humorous.
As a speculation, I would offer that nearly all forms of communication on the internet, in terms of its coordination, no matter how obtuse, can fit this human interactive model. Though, as Bookout reminds us, coordination is a specific language within language, any language — and that asynchronous flashing of thought, or feeling — might be counted as an impression while being as far away from synchronous dialog elicits action. To turn this further, Bookout offers we begin to observe from Flores’ distinction of “action” not as physical movement, like running down the street. Flores specifically distinguishes action as co-invention. Working with shared intention to produce an interpretational trio: shared interpretation; shared fulfillment; and, shared satisfaction.
Thus, the first step in trying to attain co-invention is to become hyperreal literate (something that the platforms themselves could help with, if they wanted). Being able to successfully decode memes (and other forms of hyperreal expression) is what would make one “hyperreal literate” — although truly successful decoding would require being familiar with the conventions of internet-speak.
For some memes, there may only be a formality of relation. These require familiarity with the meme as a form, as an initial exposure does not yield what is being expressed/an understanding of how to understand the content. One such meme is called “Loss”. The original image is shown below.
If you do not understand this meme, it is worth reading this article as this meme requires understanding the original expression of loss in the overly dramatic webcomic form from which it originated. This meme presents a mood about the loss of the character’s unborn child.
Seeing another iteration of Loss will yield the meaning, as the change of content delineates what is unique to the form of expression (which is the meme itself) to produce a different speech act.
Ultimately, as a meme, “Loss” was also abstracted into an extremely basic form, which helps formulate the salience of what is the form of expression. In the case above, taken in analogy from the original meme, you could see this as an assertion — although the humorousness (because it’s about donuts) makes this more of an ironic assessment. In the case above, assessment is produced as the difference between the assertion of loss and the non-tragic character of the content.
The meme as form can then be expressed with content that does not lend it any emotional impact, instead offering only a reinforcement of the pattern.
In the case above, the lack of verbal content does not depart from this meme being a speech act. This meme is a declaration of the form on its own, even as it lacks semantic content to play off the expression.
Inserted into a comment thread, this meme could serve as a comment on a deeper context, not given in this article. Memes often work this way, by generating speech acts relating to a deeper context.
Applying this understanding of memes should convince you how neutral the form of expression is, although understanding the nature of the speech act above requires a familiarity with the conventions of expression of the meme “Loss”.
For instance, the work of Chris Alexander, author of A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, is about how building spaces as a form of expression influences the lives of the people who inhabit them. The habits and lived experiences of the people take on the form of expression of the buildings they are in, emphasizing some relationships and abilities while suppressing others. Alexander wants us to think about how the form of expression for buildings structures the basic “moves” for those who inhabit those spaces. For these moves, there can also be declarations, assertions and so on, as configurations of space can suggest activities or facilitate certain forms of communication.
This should also allow you to see how subtle hyperreal forms of expression are, in that if used effectively, can directly undercut or support a particular reception to some content. Additionally, with a framework like Flores, with an eye for coordination, hyperreal expression can be quite effective at communicating meanings.
Now that I have introduced this paradigm for consideration, by walking from Flores, through selfhood and back to hyperreal forms, I invite you to consider how to best utilize this information for your own elucidation.
Today technology changes at an ever-faster pace, so by the time I drop through an exploration of various forms of expression, it is likely new ones will have spread that will challenge the boundaries of what has been expressed.
After all, establishing these forms can come from anywhere as anyone with a mobile device (multi-billion dollar dictators to some random teenager to corporations run by advertisement committees) can participate in developing novel forms of expression.
This last subsection recaps this article and follows it with an offer, which you may find to be of interest in how it prods your salience landscape.
4.1 Recap and Offer
Let us recap with some key thinkers and position them in terms of the paradigm of salience landscape and the impacts psychotechnology has on it. Each thinker offers a way of tying symbolic reasoning with action. In that sense, problems of sensemaking and our problems of coordination are two sides of the same coin, but only if you discover how people draw meaning through the relationships of behavior and signifying forms.
- Edward Bernays pioneered the approach of using psychotechnology within advertisement but only after he understood how different forms of expression had differing impacts. Bernays also had to do plenty of research on how to deploy content to impart the meaning he desired.
- Jean Baudrillard recognized how technology mastery created hyperreal environments which created new forms of meaning and interaction.
- Marshall McLuhan recognized how new forms of media/technology re-organized society, socialization, and thought.
- Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari described how the fragmentation of self and the social body resulted from the disjointed non-coordination capitalism unleashed on our already fragmented sensemaking capabilities.
- Vittorio Guidano proposed a systems view of psychological development. The self epistemologically develops internal scripts and attitudes in order to maximize interpersonal relationships. While there is no penultimate shape, the boundaries of self fluctuate based on interactions with the world. Guidano provides insight for how internal calibrations of meaning stem from experience matched against an emotional foundation.
- John Vervaeke proposed a paradigm for considering the construction of meaning, where the mechanism was inherent to cognition. In his series The Meaning Crisis, he traces how the construction of meaning responded to shifts in salience landscape as people continually fumble about trying to make sense of what is relevant.
- Fernando Flores proposed the utilization of speech acts in terms of coordination. As all human activity is in terms of coordination, including our efforts to connect through hyperreality, so Flores offers insight on how to modify our behavior to improve coordination.
I want to thank Vervaeke for his series, for without it, I would not have gotten to consider our situation from the angle of a salience landscape.
Also many thanks to David Bookout for the lengthy conversations, and his insight in bringing Flores to my attention. He may create a follow-up piece that will further elaborate on Flores. But for now, I want to draw your attention to two versions of the Global Survey designed as a dip into the duality of words; the importance of assessment; and, the observation of mood when it comes to making declarations.
- This Global Survey is in a two “meta” question format, here.
- Or a twenty-seven question format, here, surveying the thirteen domains that Flores offered as areas for speech acts.
Take either as you like. Ask me for the current passcode. The surveys are simple, and the answers anonymous. When you take the extended survey and include your email address as a note in the comments section you’ll receive access to THE CODE as well as a sample Exploration. Anything further comes as it should be. ONLY AT YOUR REQUEST ;).
The point of this survey itself is to enable you to simply reflect on various domains of your life so that you can see if you want to focus on anything. From there, you can work backward to tie it to the people in your life. The objective is that you too can begin to work towards having clear relationships where people engage in understanding one another.
Already, with limited exposure to the courseware and in the few interactions I’ve had, with attention to various aspects of the exchange, I have begun to draw basic understandings about how to better improve the relationships I have.
Additionally, as someone who develops technology, Flores has let me focus on how to interact with people through something as inhuman as a textbox, app screen, or other modal presentation. After all, all apps can be coordinators if they are designed and built that way.
With this in mind, be well and prosper!
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