synthetic zero

March 20th, 2010

Somehow SXSW and the resulting stream of thoughts, ideas, and responses have combined into a kind of repeating theme in my mind which I wanted to elaborate upon a little, here.

In my last post I talked a little about the issue of naturalness; that is, one approach is self-abnegation, self-discipline, thinking of your nature as something you have to fight with, overcome… but there’s a complementary view, which is that there’s a deeper sense of “naturalness” which doesn’t mean simply going along with habits, reactivity, etc., but it can include a larger context of life, and you can approach life not with the idea of fighting with your own nature, but with the idea of relaxing into a larger sense of what is “natural.” That is, you can think of, for example, overindulging in something as following a kind of restricted sense of the natural, yet it’s also natural to be more aware of a larger picture, i.e., that, say, so eating healthily, for example, can be something that feels right rather than being the result of a kind of self-discipline or fighting with one’s impulses.

Thich Naht Hanh likes to say you should see a cloud in a glass of water. It’s simple: we tend to see things in a very local sense; we see things, as well as ourselves, and the forces in our lives, as objects, separated from each other. Yet everything we see is interpenetrating with everything else; they come from other things and go into other things, arise, dissolve, like waves. There are vast cycles, yet we tend to assume everything is static, constant, and the factors in our lives are also static, and that we are static, for the most part, changing only in small increments through defined, atomic movements.

But in fact it’s more accurate to say we’re temporary metastable aggregates, loosely defined and strongly coupled to everything around us, and every action we take comes from and feeds back into that network of connections which surrounds and interpenetrates ourselves and everything else. To put it more simply, what we do now affects not only our immediate circumstances but has a long-term impact which can play out over longer and longer periods of time and over larger and larger contexts. And yet, though we tend to systematically ignore these larger contexts, they have a huge impact on our lives, in the long run.

The “discipline” approach, to some extent, acknowledges this, but it does so by coming up with rules and then attempting to impose these rules on ourselves and others (in the extreme, to get past the apparent conflict between the rules and our immediate impulses, those attempting to impose this approach appeal to dogma or blind faith). But there is another way, involving presence or awareness: trying to bring a larger context of life directly into present awareness. There are many ways of doing this — contemplative practice is one approach to helping us notice this larger context and bring it more fully into our moment-to-moment life: it addresses a certain direct perceptual/participatory aspect of this. More generally, however, it seems to me, what’s at issue has to do with bringing a direct awareness of a larger context into the present moment, so we see the potential long-term or larger context effects in a more direct, visceral way.

We can see the tension between the immediate and the larger-scale or longer-term in so many areas of politics, social issues, environmental issues, etc.: global warming is a perfect example. This is a phenomenon which occurs so slowly that the changes from year to year are hard to notice; the relationship between our actions today and the longer-term effect on the future of the planet are difficult to perceive directly. Through careful analysis, observation, and modeling we can understand a bit better how the various aspects of the system might evolve, but it takes something visceral for us to visualize the problem directly and see it as a present, rather than a hypothetical future, or even imaginary, threat.

We have, however, existing perceptual systems which are designed to take in vast amounts of information and process them directly and quickly; this is the power of data visualization and why, I think, further experiments to extend and expand the range of ways in which we can visualize complex relationships and patterns can yield powerfully important aids for us in understanding and responding to our lives at every scale, from our individual lives to larger and larger scale communities. A lot of what interests me about philosophy, ontology, etc., also indexes back into this; the way we perceive and conceptualize our world can have a big impact on what patterns seem immediately evident and which are obscured by habit or by the fact that the patterns can’t get past our conceptual blinders.

permalink |

comment trackback

leave comment


synthetic zero is powered by WordPress

posts(rss) . comments(rss)