What if everything you thought was right is wrong? This is the murky world of gas-lighting, paranoia, doubt, divisiveness, and anger. The patterns we instinctively follow to the watering holes of ‘right’, ‘truthful’, and ‘moral’. We learn these norms and values. They are cultural constructs. We aren’t born with them. We weave them from tales told by our parents, friends, teachers, books, newspapers, and social media. They vary from place to place and from time to time in various places. They are dynamic leaving us in a state of perpetual change. The patterns appear to be our own when in reality all of them are borrowed from others with only the rare attribution as to the original source. What if that watering hole was just a collective illusion? And what if a new pattern of thought and ideas remapped those places we migrated to and substituted a novel image of reality.
The United States and other countries, fueled by new technology, are at the beginning stages of depatterning. The way we understand the truth of the world, our actions, our motives and intentions, and those of other is in turmoil. We have lost our mental footing. In the midst of the fall, before we hit the ground, it might be worth considering we are subject to an accelerated process of shedding our previous models of reality without an equally rapid replacement to clutch as handrails.
Depatterning is a form of brainwashing so as to remove the normal patterns of thinking and behavior. Our patterns construct our subjective experience from the exterior world we move around in. That is a narrow definition and involves an intentionality on the part of those seeking to shift patterns of thought and action. Think how long it took to disrupt the normal patterns of thinking about cigarette smoking? The pattern that informed our thoughts about smoking was stoked by association with romance, drama, and glamourous movie stars and sports stars who smoked. Smoking became a symbol of personal freedom. Years and years passed as scientists and doctors (the ones not on the tobacco payroll) tried to inform the public about the unromantic health dangers of smoking. We ultimately changed our pattern of thinking about smoking. Our original pattern of thought was based on wrong assumptions. Our collective thoughts about cigarettes were manufactured: first as a symbol of glamour and second as an instrument of death. Similar old ideas about race, gender and ethnicity have shifted, but part of the population still resists disturbing the traditional patterns of thinking about such matters.
Chuck Klosterman in But What if We’re Wrong? (2018) noted that for two thousand years people accepted Aristotle’s belief a rock fell to the ground because it belonged to the earth and wanted it to return. Klosterman’s book is an extended argument of how most of what we know is likely in the same category as Aristotle’s theory of gravity. It’s just plain wrong. But we don’t go around thinking that we are wrong about most things. Most of the time we feel we are right and other people are wrong. When in fact everyone is wrong and no one can admit that fact to themselves or others.
Aristotle’s error was passed on to multiple generations. It became accepted as true. We can smirk at this long period of ignorance and feel slightly superior with our updated knowledge of gravity. We can agree that while everyone else in the past got it wrong, we are different because we finally, at last got it right with the true and absolute answer. Patterns are like comfortable shoes. We don’t easily discard them. There are a couple of ways the pattern breaking occurs—advancement of scientific understanding, creation of new technology and psychedelic drugs. The latter have been declared illegal, off-limits, and dangerous and it has stopped a growing movement unearthed by writers like Michael Pollan’s aptly titled How to Change Your Mind (2018). Pollan charts the history, the laws, the science and the medical application. He records the studies that point to opening a new path to reintroduce psychedelic drugs such as LSD and mushrooms. Pattern busting avenue is to ingest a chemical. It may produce bliss. It may produce anxiety or horrors.
All three—science, technology and drugs—are converging in our lifetime. We are curious. We are scared. We are unsettled as to where one or a combination of these avenues will eventually lead us. What can be said with some conviction is that each of us is undergoing the process of depatterning.
Our latest technological innovations are forcing us to rethink what can be trusted. We have all become more cynical and skeptical of images, text, statements, accounts and videos. Before these changes we’ve traditionally used the daily dose of information as basically ‘true’ and ‘reliable’. We didn’t ask whether something was fake. Though that sometimes happened. It was uncommon and difficult in an analogue world. In the digital world it is cheap, fast, effective and allows many more players to play the game of disrupting and replacing our reality. If the old trust assumption is dead, how can we be sure of what we see as ‘real’ in order to judge a motive, intention or action. A Washington Post report titled “Fake News is about to get more dangerous” on technological advances that permit the making of “deep fake”— nearly impossible to detect fake—videos warns of the steep slide down another technological rabbit hole.
“If technology continues its current advance, we may soon face totally convincing videos showing events that never happened — created so effectively that even experts will have trouble proving they’re fakes.
“Deep fake” video will be able to show people saying, with the authentic ring of their own voices, things they never said. It will show them doing things they never did, by melding their images with other video or creating new images of them from scratch.”
Open your browser history on your computer and scroll down for the places you visited last week. Check your Facebook and Twitter timelines and your own history of ‘likes.’ Go through your library, look at the books you’ve read (or not read) on the shelf. The exercise will give you a snapshot of your own biases, filters, and content you’ve personally curated as an expression of how your truths, facts, and morals. Commercial Big Data (not to be confused with Scientific Big Data) has tapped into this emotional and intellectual root system. By doing so the big data owners effectively own you in ways that are not apparent but are nonetheless real. As much as in principle we celebrate cognitive diversity, in reality we like any system that spares us cognitive dissonance. We trust what confirms rather than challenges the reality we’ve constructed. It is difficult to persuade someone to abandon the template for pattern making that they have developed over a life time. It is difficult as well to accept someone whose pattern making is alien to our own. We hunker down in like-minded communities and co-ordinate attacks on those who disagree with us.
Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court will likely be confirmed. He will take a seat on the highest court where he can participate in the cycle of depatterning of American legal constructs and replace them with older patterns from the past. The solace is this is a short-term gain. In the near and long term, Big Data patterns will replace our low information, emotion-based social constructs. Our big ape brains will be retrained in the meaning of real, true, or factual. It will be much more difficult to stonewall as the tobacco companies did successfully for years. But there is a wildcard: the creation, distribution, access, and interpretation of Big Data may be concentrated in the hands of a small elite who will be tempted to use the new patterns for more influence, more power and more wealth accumulation.
Pattern recognition will remain the key to opening the door to our perceptions about ourselves and life. How those patterns are formed is about to change, and that change will have enormous implications for the way we think and solve problems and how we confront our existential fears. We will have little choice to learn that changing our minds will lag behind the data. Our collective and individual intelligence is capped by cognitive limitations. AI won’t have such limitations, and will have large cognitive resources to mine, refine, and reflect on the patterns that represent reality. How we perceive reality points to solutions to old and new problems. We have the possibility that whatever these new patterns show, it will open up the world in the same way that the microscope and telescope opened our world. We will see and feel more, and see further than ever before.