During his unpopular, but successful defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, John Adams said that “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” If only he could see the state of facts in the 21st Century. We live in what some are calling a post-truth era, where facts are filtered and altered either by the dictates of our passions or an algorithm. Facts that challenge our assumptions, or simply have uncomfortable implications for our worldview, pass through us like neutrinos from a distant galaxy, failing to even register on a subatomic level as they zip past our filters.
But did we ever live in a world where people had access to the whole truth, or weren’t inclined to ignore facts they didn’t like? The mid-20th Century was somewhat anomalous in terms of how people got their information. In the early days when mass media was confined to TV and radio, a small number of organizations acted as gatekeepers of which facts were true and more importantly, worthy of attention in the first place. The norm for human history preceding that was for people to get information through slow or incomplete methods, and often from biased or less-than-reliable sources. For most of our time as a species, humanity has inhabited a demon-haunted world, where tradition, superstition, and rumor took precedence over anything resembling critical thinking to establish an objective reality.
That said, it is naive to think that we are not living in the midst of a historic and fundamental change in how people receive and process information. The global explosion of smartphones, WiFi coverage, and the infrastructure for mobile connectivity is creating a world where more people spend more time in a digital reality cut off from the sensory inputs of physical reality. And this digital reality has an agenda; to sell you things, increase your time on the app, and get you to divulge personal data so they can then sell that. With the snake oil salesman, at least you could look him in the eye, listen to the too-slick cadence of his voice, and get an intuitive sense that he was lying to you. Our current situation is an uncontrolled experiment in mass psychology, where the global population is exposed daily to a firehose of misinformation and bias. This is creating an altered social reality that is already leading to negative mental health impacts and a fracturing of the consensus on truth. In the era of deepfakes, you can’t even trust your own eyes anymore. We have entered what we call the Age of Insanity.
The coming years are likely to accelerate the stressors on our collective sanity, and challenge our ability to determine what is real and true. The next big trend in tech is virtual and augmented reality, with billions of dollars already being invested in hundreds of companies. As Elon Musk said in a recent interview:
Your phone is already an extension of you … Most people don’t realize you’re already a cyborg. It’s just that the data rate … it’s slow, very slow. It’s like a tiny straw of information flow between your biological self and your digital self. We need to make that tiny straw like a giant river, a huge, high-bandwidth interface.”
The end goal? Neal Stephenson’s new novel Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell describes a near-future America where it is taken for granted that the digital and biological self is fully integrated through glasses and other wearable technology. A walk through town is a sensory assault of advertising, navigation pins, and search results about the strangers you pass by. In this future, the dark side of the internet hasn’t gone away, so the wealthy and middle classes hire ‘editors’ – humans or AIs that filter the useful information from the ‘torrent of porn, propaganda, and death threats, 99.9 percent of which were algorithmically generated”. Those who can’t afford a decent editor spend their days stewing in an augmented reality of conspiracy theories and subliminal messages, “whose sole function was to make (them) angry and afraid.” In short, it’s a future where everyone inhabits their own reality, grounded in the ‘facts’ selectively presented to them by AIs with competing agendas.
We imagine a more sane, and more human future instead of simply accepting an accelerating Age of Insanity. It starts with recognizing what we call the ‘Thought/Feeling cycle’ and learning to develop agency over it. We all have thoughts, then feelings about those thoughts, then thoughts about those feelings, and the cycle continues ad infinitum. Much of the Taylor Group’s work is based on cultivating an awareness of this dynamic and enabling conscious choice around it. All of the current and proposed tech mentioned so far is specifically engineered to insert itself into this cycle, then manipulate and monetize the thoughts and feelings it provokes in us.
So we can choose to focus on the ‘facts’ presented to us by an algorithm, and deal with the resulting feelings, or we can choose to focus on the facts we notice by staying present to ourselves, and the moment. Pausing to reflect on our internal reality will have us notice facts like: “It’s a beautiful day outside” or “I’m upset my coworker didn’t respond to my email.” These examples are intentionally quotidian, because given the demands on our attention, we often miss the things right in front of us. Noticing them can interrupt the Thought/Feeling cycle, and help us see actions that are empowering or fulfilling. Being present to a beautiful day can lead you to take a stress-relieving walk in the sunshine. Even being present to an upset can be empowering – a check-in conversation with that co-worker is much more productive than getting angrier with every hour that email doesn’t get a response.
We passionately believe that the Age of Insanity is not a forgone conclusion or permanent condition. We are also not Luddites. Technology can be a force for good, and a value-add to the human experience. But our humanity must come first, last, and always in the equation. Whether in the physical or digital world, we must constantly cultivate the presence of mind to ask; Does this activity bring me joy? Does it help me achieve something that matters to me? Does it help me stay grounded and in present time? Consciously asking and answering these questions helps us stay connected to what is true and good, and thus keep our sanity.