May 1, 2024

Life, the ultimate ‘reality’

I’m reissuing this post from 2019, in response to some very scary stuff I heard on Radio 4 yesterday, about the effect of pornography on boys, and therefore also on girls. It made me so angry, to think of what we are allowing corporations to do to our children, in the name of ‘profit’.

We humans are very good at taking ideas or feelings that are abstract, implicit, unexpressed, and possibly inexpressible, and giving them a concrete form, so that we can reason about them as if they have a real physical presence.

It’s called reification, and we do it all the time, with maps; forms; questionnaires, diagrams; musical scores; plans; and especially software. Those familiar icons on your phone or laptop screen are reifications of the idea of a dustbin, or a folder, just as the original dustbin was a reification of the idea of ‘a place to collect rubbish’.

This is OK when we know that we are doing it.  When we look at a map, we know it isn’t the territory.  But when we give the map a voice that tells us where to go next, we forget it’s a map, and trust it as if it’s real – more real than the territory.

The most dangerous thing about this aspect of reification is that some ideas and feelings are inexpressible, which means that in order to capture them, we must simplify them, reduce them, lose nuance – lose meaning.

We’ve all filled in questionnaires where some of the answers don’t really fit with our experience.  But we have to choose one, so we go with the nearest answer, or which captures one aspect of it. By the time everyone does that, the people behind the questionnaire have created a model of the group of questionnaire answerers that in fact does not capture real life at all.

That’s fine if it was just for fun, but what if that model is then used to build the ‘systems’ (not necessarily software) and institutions that surround us? 

As I heard yesterday, it becomes the ‘reality’ actual life never quite lives up to.

So, it’s important to stay aware that the map is not the territory. The way life is presented in soap operas and dramas is not necessarily how it happens in real life. The way people look on social and other media is not necessarily how they look in real life. The way sex is represented in films, including pornography, is not how it happens in real life. Life online is not the same as life offline.

It’s also important to leave inexpressible things unexpressed.  To leave some parts to the imagination of the players, for them to work out in real life. 

Even more importantly we need to enable people to be fully present in their interactions with each other. Without expecting either side to conform to some impossible model, not of our making.

Only then can we create room for moments of real life to emerge from the interactions between one human being and another.

Those moments we’re all really looking for.

Discipline makes Daring possible.