Communication, as we normally encounter it, has no other function other than that of being an anaesthetic. Not to put too fine a point on it, what we call ‘communication’ is simply there to put us to sleep, and – once we are asleep – keep us well-and-truly under. Everywhere we look in social spaces we are likely to see tight little knots of people earnestly talking away to each other. We might even see the odd person going around talking away happily to themselves. We think we’re exchanging information, keeping abreast with what is going on in the world around us, or perhaps hearing new ideas or theories about whatever it is that is going on. This is not the case however – that is merely the impression we are under.
What we are really doing – whether we realize it or not – is confirming each other’s world-view. Actually, we all subscribe to the same world view (give or take a few insignificant local variations) and so what we’re doing is confirming the world-view that we are all subscribing to. This is very easy to demonstrate – if you happen to be one of those unusual people who happen to have a different world-view to everyone else and you start to talk to someone or other you will notice that before more than even a minute has gone past you will be getting what is generally called ‘odd looks’. Something isn’t right, something isn’t going down well. It is as if there is suddenly a bad smell in the room, and you can’t help feeling that it is coming from you. You just aren’t saying the rights things. You aren’t pressing the right buttons and so you’re not going to get the ‘acceptance’ response.
The person you are talking to almost certainly didn’t mean to give you odd looks, it’s just that this is what automatically happens when a person who has subscribed to the collective viewpoint comes across someone who hasn’t. If I am a paid-up member of the ‘consensus reality club’ then I simply can’t help giving you the cold shoulder, the funny look; it is an involuntary reflex – say the right things and everything is fine and dandy, say the wrong things and you’re out in the cold. It’s as simple as that, as mechanical as that…
Not believing in the consensus reality is an out-an-out disability with regard to getting on with people. It would not necessarily be so if you met someone who had an interest in learning to look at the world your way (assuming that this is possible), but this sort of genuine curiosity simply doesn’t happen in society. Condemnation is what you can expect, not curiosity. It would be an extraordinarily rare thing to meet somebody who is genuinely curious about your world if your world doesn’t happen to be constructed along the same lines as everybody else. After all, there is no profit in curiosity – there is only profit in conformity. That’s where the big pay-off is…
The social system is all about conformity, it is all about having a standardized understanding of what reality is and what reality is about. The quicker you adapt to the game the quicker you will be accepted, or as Stephen King puts it, you have to ‘go along to get along’. It doesn’t really matter what the ‘format’ is that’s being used, the point is that there has to be some format or other that is universally recognized and then – once there is such a universal format, or universal ‘language’ – everything depends upon how fast and how cleverly you can adapt to it. Adaptation, not ‘free-lancing’, is the key to success.
When we talk we aren’t really exchanging information at all but something in Ernst and Christine von Weizsacker’s model of Pragmatic Information is called confirmation. Confirmation is anything that matches or agrees with your pre-existing evaluative criteria, anything that fits in to your ready-made conceptual categories. You say something, and because what you say perfectly obeys the syntax that we both take for granted, I straightaway understand you. This type of ‘communication’ is effortless, it happens very easily, but at the same time as being very easy it is essentially hollow (or ‘substance-less’) because nothing radically new is being communicated. If something radically new were being communicated I would give you an odd look because I am simply not in the business of being interested in radically new stuff. I know how to play the game of regular human communication and this is what I want to do when I talk to people – I want to have my world-view confirmed, not challenged. I’m just not interested in the odd stuff!
Communication that challenges the criteria which we habitually use for interpreting the world is known in the Model of Pragmatic Information as novelty. Novelty cannot be made sense of using the same old conceptual framework that we use for making sense of everything else – if we could make sense of it in this way then it would be confirmation not novelty. We can of course transform novelty in to confirmation; in fact we do this all the time – that is how the rational-conceptual mind works. If you come along and start talking to me and what you are saying doesn’t make sense to my established conceptual categories then I will find a way of making sense of it. I will say (or most probably think) that you are talking nonsense. I will say (or think) that you are a freak, a weirdo, a complete nutter. All of these terms represent pre-existent modalities of conceptualization on my part and so when I say that you are a freak and that you are talking rubbish I have succeeded in converting novelty into conformation. I have interpreted the new in terms of the old.
Novelty – if it is not safely converted into confirmation – has the property of changing the mind, the ‘conceptual apparatus’, that receives it. That is why we are so busy the whole time converting N into C – because we don’t want our minds to change. We want to keep them the way they are… This observation ties in with our attitudes to beliefs in general. It is considered, by-and-large, to be a good thing to have a belief. Everyone should believe in something, we say. It is considered to be a sign of taking life seriously – what sort of a half-assed excuse for a person wouldn’t have a belief of one sort or another? What sort of a wishy-washy way to be would that be? The curious thing about beliefs however is that – when it comes right down to it – it doesn’t really matter what beliefs you have, as long as you have them. If I am the sort of person who has a need to have a strong belief about something or other than I can equally well believe in the one thing as I can in the other; the feeling of security, the feeling of satisfaction in knowing that I am ‘right’, is the same no matter what my belief is.
Beliefs are, therefore, just an excuse for closing our minds. I don’t want to think about anything, I say. I already know, so I’m not going to look into the matter any more. I don’t want to go there. The matter is closed. Each of us is – in this respect – rather like a limpet stuck a rock. Everyone needs a rock to be stuck onto just in case we get washed away, and so as long as we have a rock, we are happy. My belief-structure (my ‘reality-construct’) is my rock. And so if you come along and try to prise me off my rock, then I am going to be very unhappy about that; quite likely I will be very angry indeed, unless – possibly – you can provide me with a bigger and even more secure rock than the one I had before. In that case, I might well be interested!
The reason we are all addicted to confirmation therefore is because we don’t like to lose our sense of ‘knowing what reality is all about’. It is not that we actually give a damn about what reality is about – in fact we don’t care at all. We couldn’t care less. We just want to superficially feel that we understand it so we don’t have to think about it any more – so that we can just get on with it (whatever ‘it’ is…) Give me a structure to slot into, a schema to buy into, a game to play, and I will be truly delighted. This is what it is all about, as far as I am concerned. I want the facade, the appearance of substance, and I am not at all inclined to go looking into it any deeper than I need to. Plato says that ‘a life unexamined is a life not worth living’ but I am simply not the examining kind…
If you give me a bunch or rules to adapt to – preferably a bunch or rules that everyone else has already decided to adapt to – then I will be very happy indeed. That is why we collectively place such a high value on confirmation – because we want that set of rules, that particular syntax, to be validated for us so that we really don’t have to ever question anything in a radical (or ‘deep’) way ever again. We don’t want to be ontologically challenged. Or to put this in a nice simple way, we value confirmation as highly as we do because we all just want to go to sleep… We want to be put under the anaesthetic, and stay under…
The big media outlets are the most powerfully anaesthetic of any forms of ‘communication’. They are the purest source of confirmation that it is possible to get. They are like huge pipes which continuously vent out huge quantities of anaesthetic gas into every social space – there is practically zero chance of anyone ever coming around just so long as they are standing anywhere in the general vicinity. And that accounts for a pretty large percentage of the human population. These massive media outlets keep pumping out colossal amounts of undiluted confirmation-type information 24 hrs a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year… And in addition to the more traditional forms of media such as the radio and the TV, we now have a huge proliferation of ancillary devices such as lap-tops, smart-phones, tablets, ipods, ipads, and so on, all of which have as their primary function of the channelling of high-grade confirmation directly into our brains.
As a culture, therefore, it is a fair enough comment to say that our major preoccupation is ‘self-distraction’ – side-tracking ourselves with a barrage of inconsequential nonsense. We have always been pretty keen on this sort of thing but in the last few decades we have truly excelled ourselves at it. We are inundating ourselves, burying ourselves, smothering ourselves, hypnotizing ourselves with a relentless stream of sleep-inducing words, sleep-inducing ideas, and sleep-inducing images. We manufacture this stuff on a literally mind-numbing scale and pipe it around the world via a global information-processing system that is becoming ever more sophisticated, ever more capacious, ever more ubiquitous. This stream of ‘distracting information’ is a our life-blood as a culture, it is what keeps everything ticking over, it is our breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper, it is the grass upon which we graze happily every day, like so many media-mad ungulates.
The suggestion that the transglobal information superhighway of which we are so proud carries nothing more interesting than a novel type of narcotic drug isn’t exactly flattering to our view of ourselves. We like to think that we’re on the ‘cutting-edge’ of it all, expanding our awareness every minute, taking it all in, not dozing lethargically in a confirmation-induced stupor, the dim-witted puppets of whatever corporate interests are ‘controlling the mix’, reading what we are given to read, watching what we are given to watch, talking about the topics that the media says are current and trending, thinking about the issues that have been highlighted for us as important issues, and so on. We like to think that we have a tremendous diversity at our finger-tips. But it isn’t diversity that comes out of the ascendant global mega-culture but dilution – any tiny bit of genuine novelty that is in the mix is diluted by everything else to a near homeopathic degree. Commercial media platforms have as is often said no interest in minority interests because there is no money in it, but even more important than the profit-motive is the conservative agenda – the agenda to keep things the same, the agenda to block and sabotage change at all costs, the agenda to keep the game as it is being played now going on for ever. This is after all what confirmation is all about – it is ‘optimization-type information’, information that is geared towards helping the entrenched game-players endlessly optimize or perfect their game.
It might be said that as a species we communicate as never before. Our capacity for transmitting, processing and storing data increases exponentially every year. And yet there is a truly cosmic irony here. Saying that we are being anaesthetized or put to sleep is another way of saying that we are rapidly becoming less and less able to see that the ‘content’ which we are being given to think about, concern ourselves with, take seriously, etc, is ever-more superficial, ever more inconsequential, ever-more ridiculous in nature. The quantitative measures of our endeavour shoot up and up like a sky-rocket, but at the same time the ‘quality of the product’, so to speak, plummets right down to the abyss. And – amazingly – we don’t notice this happening. We don’t notice this happening because the part of us that would notice, is gently and imperceptibly being wafted off somewhere. The part of us that knows what is going on is drifting away, drifting away, drifting away…
What happens then is that the porch light gets left on, but there is nobody actually home. The rocking-chair is rocking back and forth quite vigorously but there’s no one sitting in it. When the core being or essence has gone all that is left is the empty chattering of the disconnected rational mind, mere echoes or reverberations of a meaning that has long since departed. The disconnected (or de-spirited) rational mind is like a ghost that doesn’t know that it is a ghost. It is like a chicken that has had its head chopped off but which keeps on running and running because it doesn’t happen to know that it is dead.
Similarly, all that is left when our capacity to discern truth from nonsense is lost is the most horrendously dreadful inanity – and yet we don’t see it because for us inanity passes for wit. We have become participants in a ‘pantomime of the inane’, a truly grotesque dance macabre. Life turns into a kind of ‘theatre of the absurd’. This is like a Samuel Beckett play, perhaps Waiting for Godot, where the key characters become supremely skilful at wasting time because there is simply nothing else to do – Godot is never going to turn up and, on some level or other, we all know it. Or it is like that other absurdist play of Beckett’s Happy Days where all the characters are buried up to their heads in sand, and yet studiously avoid ever mentioning the fact. Instead they manage to remain entirely absorbed in nonsensical trivialities.
Soren Kierkegaard did not fail to note the cosmic irony to which we are referring. As he wryly observes in his Journals –
All those exceptional human beings, scattered so few and so far between through the centuries, have each in their time delivered judgement on “humanity.” According to one: man is an animal. According to another: he is a hypocrite. According to another: he is a liar. And so on.
Perhaps I won’t be too wide of the mark when I say: he is a waffler – and encouraged by the gift of speech at that.
With the help of speech everyone participates in the highest – but to participate in the highest with the help of speech, and in doing so to talk nonsense, is as much a mockery as to participate in a royal banquet by being a spectator in the gallery.
Were I a pagan, I would say: an ironic deity bestowed on man the gift of speech so as to amuse himself watching such a self-deception.
Of course from a Christian viewpoint, God bestowed the gift of speech on humanity out of love, so making it possible for all to gain a real understanding of the highest – oh, with what sorrow must God look down on the result!
But if this were the case three hundred years ago, when information technology was pretty much limited to pen and ink and the good old-fashioned mechanical printing press, then it is hard to imagine what Kierkegaard would say now. One would have to have a rare command of language to come anywhere near doing justice to the extraordinary situation which now prevails in the second decade of the twenty-first century. If you told someone about it they just plain wouldn’t believe it – they would tell you to go away. How could anyone believe that Homo sapiens (‘man the wise, as he calls himself) is capable of making such a fool of himself? There is no fool greater than the fool who is convinced of his own good sense, and no clown more clownish than the clown who takes himself absolutely seriously.
And yet there is nothing new here. The state of unconsciousness has always been precisely that state in which we take empty illusions seriously, the state in which we invest our energy in nonsense, the state of being in which we waste our precious attention on red herrings and unimportant side-shows. Psychological unconsciousness is a kind of a hypnosis, a kind of a spell, a kind of a ‘dark enchantment’ which we fall under. It is a ‘dark enchantment’ because it causes us to spend all our time worrying about stuff that – in reality – doesn’t matter at all, whilst at the same time we totally ignore what really does matter. In the unconscious or ‘passively identified’ state we give our attention over to whatever spurious issues comes along, we hand ourselves over to nonsensical considerations and as a result of our attention being ‘kidnapped’ in this way we miss out on what is genuinely worthwhile. We are so busy being pre-occupied with nonsense that we miss out on our own lives, and the lives of those dear to us.
The situation is always the same really, no matter whether we happen to be born in the twenty-first century or the first. It is as of there is a kind of a game going on. Some things never change, they say, and the game we are talking about is a good example of a thing that never changes. When we are born it is as if there are two angels attending us, following us around. One is the angel of light who is really our own conscience, our own innate ability to discern between what is true and what is not true. The Gnostics knew this angel as ‘the luminous epinoia’.
The other contender in the game is the dark angel who is really our own weak side, the self that is afraid. This ‘weaker self’ is always looking for a way out from the essential challenge of life, and it operates by inventing spurious issues for us to get involved in, so that we don’t have to do what deep down we know that we need to do. It finds jobs for us, games for us to get caught up in, issues for us to be bothered by, so that we can forget about the true task of life, which is simply to see the truth. By devoting ourselves full-time to false tasks and false issues we neglect what ought to be our true concern, and that suits the fearful self very well indeed.
These two angels, these two forces, are contending in life, and – the game being what it is – either could win. If the angel of light wins we see through the deceptions that are being perpetrated by her adversary, and find freedom from his endless traps and machinations, and if her adversary wins, then we don’t see through the tangled web of deceptions and we end up – as a result – wasting what is most precious to us. We sell everything that matters to us for a promise that turns out to be not worth the paper it is printed on. We betray ourselves either out of greed, or out of fear and in this case when the bell rings ‘game over’ then we come away with nothing and Ahriman the Deceiver has won yet another hand. Things being what they are, his victory is very nearly – but not quite – a foregone conclusion…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.