Friday, January 18, 2013

Attention and Perspective

Values and the Creation of Individual Identity

Here's a decent, if dry, article talking about identity, just in case you want to see what current thinkers are doing in the area.

I want to go deep on this, because I think it will matter later as the discussion turns towards what is "true" and what isn't. Who you are as an individual is a result of the circumstances of your life; social, physical, internal biology, everything plays a role. Your mind was built to do two primary things: pattern recognition and evaluation. We recognize patterns of physical existence or behavior as discrete objects or principles, and then we gauge the value of those objects or principles by how they relate to us or other valued objects or principles. To put it simply, we recognize objects/entities and relationships between them, and we recognize what that means for whatever we care about.

Since I'm running with some praxeology ideas, let me break it down using some shit from Kant. I'm going to borrow very heavily from Robert Pirsig's description of Kant's notion of perspective and sensory understanding of reality, as written in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (if you haven't read that, I recommend it).

A couple of centuries ago, a philosopher named David Hume posed some questions about the relationships between what we perceive and what reality is. Hume was an empiricist; he believed that all knowledge we received was through the senses. But there were some issues between the connection of what we sensed and what we actually knew. We know that sensory data can be deceiving, and that leaps in logical connection are anything but reliable, so given that, how do we actually know anything? Put it this way; when we look at an object from a different point of view, the sensory perception changes. Pirsig used the example of a motorcycle; when you sit on a motorcycle, you see certain shapes, like the gas tank and the gauges. Then when you get off the motorcycle, and look at it from the side, you see a totally different set of shapes, leading to a totally different perception.

How do you know it's the same motorcycle?

Hume's answer was, if you follow strict rules of logic, you don't. This might seem weird, but it makes a huge difference if you're thinking about causation, and therefore thinking about the basis for all scientific reason. The connections your mind draws may or may not have anything to do with reality. Much of this could be in our heads; Pirsig was particularly bothered by questions pertaining to the scientific method. There are, as a practical matter, almost unlimited possible explanations for why things work how they work. The ability for the imagination to come up with explanations for phenomena seems to not boil down the possibilities, but to expand them. (I think this is one reason why scientists get pissed when the notion of GOD being an actor in the universe gets brought up. We can explain the universe mechanically, just not perfectly, and there have been huge paradigm shifts in science's understanding of how things work. Throwing God into the mix, which is unprovable with scientific tools, just pisses off everyone.)

Kant dealt with this fuzziness by creating the concept called a priori. Basically, the mind does not get its knowledge strictly through sense data. Instead, we essentially calculate what reality actually is by connecting the dots of perception. We synthesize a worldview. Time and space, particularly, give us a somewhat linear picture of what is happening, and the why is the result of calculations based on years of life experience telling us how things fit together. All this happens subconsciously, and it's going on constantly. We take in huge amounts of data all the time, prioritize it automatically, and integrate it into our understanding of the world. The result is an a priori worldview, which I think looks an awful lot like a computer constructing and revising a 3D model of reality in our imaginations at any given time, based on perceptions past and present.

Should we be integrating attention distribution into figuring out how the individual's a priori universe is constructed?

What I'm thinking is, there are some obvious connections here between the "attention economy" and the creation of the individual worldview, and therefore the individual identity. Our ideas are what make us who we are; otherwise, it's all just physical sensation and sensory crap thrown together into a jumbled mess. So in the development of ideas, one particularly important form of data we take in are the ideas communicated to us by other people, and thus, our social environment makes us who we are, by allocating our attention to what matters, what has value, according to cultural norms. Our a priori worldview, the relationships and connections that matter, are connections made with social input, the distribution of attention affected by constant perceptions of value that are manipulated by the social environment... along with our particular biology, our physical environment, and all the other factors.

Imagine that you walk into Wal-Mart and look around. Just at the entrance to the store. What do your senses perceive? You will not simply see the huge, brightly lit structure housing lots of stuff, which is the most bland possible perception. Your attention will be drawn in certain directions. A greeter might annoy you. An endcap display might stick out - as it's meant to do - advertising a sale of some kind. We take in data selectively, but the data we select has everything to do with how things are presented to us. And you have a lifetime of experience figuring out what is valuable, so the sellers can use this, if they understand some of your values to begin with.

Most major programming is done during childhood. The younger we are, the more every experience matters in developing our perspective; without the thick backlog of prior experiences to already form a set of values and a worldview, kids are extremely impressionable. That makes economic sense: every experience is more valuable if you don't have many of them to begin with. So the connections we figure out in younger years set the background of our worldview. Perspectives on cause-and-effect with authority, with people who are close to equal with us, with those who serve, who is more predictable and can be trusted, what we can do to make impressions on people, our self-worth, everything starts in youth. And getting the attention of young people makes a difference for everyone involved with the kid: parents, teachers, advertisers in particular.

Certain features make things jump out at us. Bright colors, loud noises, anything that looks new or unusual and could therefore be a threat or a not-yet-experienced pleasure. Those are deep-seated attention-getters, because animals in the wild need that data and they've evolved to respond quickly to it. We've evolved it, too. Also, sexual features: tits, tits, and bigger tits, that'll get a guy's attention, along with child-bearin' hips and other ingrained elements of reproductively valuable recognition. (that's also not an excuse to stare. don't be rude when there's so much porn out there) And that's just the heavily genetic stuff. As we've lived in society for all our lives, we become attuned to different things and developed preferences for whatever provides positive feedback. We have ridiculous built-in software for facial pattern recognition, and it makes us extremely sensitive to other people's moods. We become attuned to signals of class and authority from others. Etcetera.

So, in the creation of our identities, we are predisposed to pay attention to certain things, and that predisposition has us valuing certain things. But also, other people know what some of our predispositions are, and use that to draw attention to what they want us to value. This is critical to understanding power, even in an environment, like ours, that tries to stress individual liberty. There's always manipulation at work in the social environment; the way we talk to each other, the way we dress, the car we drive, all of them draw a certain amount of attention and give a certain impression. Our a priori worldview is shaped by these exposures. This is my basic understanding of how values are created in people that draw them into the value systems of society at large and lead to hierarchies and shared worldviews. We're bound by perspective, and perspective is what makes you who you are. It's what makes some people similar and some people very different in outlook, and it's what makes cultures have patterns of thought, trends that work the same way markets work; interactions are exchanges, the currency of these exchanges is attention, and attention creates values in the individual by revising their worldview. Using this system, authorities have been able to organize society. And this type of thinking could let the subjectivity/objectivity debates rest for a minute. Physical reality is objective, but individual and cultural priorities are not. They are subjective, but it's a unifying subjectivity that gives us the ability to understand each other.

Coke and LSD

This is just a fun aside, but it's not just that advertisers can mess with this: You can fuck with this, fuck with your own perspective, all sorts of ways. One of the most radical ways evidently comes with dropping acid.

Disclaimer: I have not dropped acid, so I'm speaking from gathered impressions.

Acid seems to allow two things. For one, the evaluating part of the mind is somehow shifted to where you can see things differently; you can look at the world in the broad sense, take in all of it at once. The attention span is does not focus like normal. The process of seeing something and breaking it down and evaluating it doesn't happen. There is a huge broadening of the perspective. This is associated with a sense of breadth that reduces the ego.
Two, acid seems to provoke people to explore their own consciousness, maybe by becoming more distant to the internal thought process. Heavy trippers saw taking a hit or two as exploring inner space, tooling around in their own minds.
None of this causes aggression. Quite the opposite, it seems to zone the user out, unless there's a really bad trip going on. Even then, violence is rare. Screwed up perceptions of what's going on, not recognizing context, seems more common. It can make you stupid, or at least make you LOOK stupid.

Disclaimer: I also haven't done coke.

Then there's coke, which seems to take the evaluating side of us and crank it up to 11. It's very pleasurable to do this, because it's very empowering. The saying goes, "Cocaine makes you a new man. And the first thing that new man wants is more cocaine."

If LSD can space you out, then coke can turn you into Tony Montana, screaming that he'll take your bullets. One of these drugs is empowering only in the sense of giving an edge to someone looking to know himself better and see the world differently. The other is just purely empowering.

Anyway, I'm not telling you to change your perspective or be on guard for manipulation all the time or whatnot. Chances are, you've already been alive long enough to have some idea who you can trust and who you can't, who will steer you wrong and who's reinforcing notions you need. You instinctively look to survive and thrive in your environment. Cocaine is not necessary for empowerment; in fact, the intensity of it is probably counter-productive for getting along in the social environment and setting yourself up well in the long term. It's just an interesting way to look at things if you want to know how values work. It's all reinforcement, exposure, adaptability, most of it subconscious but some of it not. 

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