Friday, December 01, 2017

Turn on, tune in, and...... 'like' on Facebook

Over time, we create a mental model of the real world that is strongly influenced by our beliefs, prejudices and experiences, and our model will differ from that of other people in far greater ways than is usually accepted. The world that we consciously inhabit increasingly resembles our own 'world view'. Should an optimistic person walk down a street, for example, they would be inclined to register happy couples, pleasant weather or playing children. A cynical person walking down exactly the same street might completely miss those details, and see instead the homeless population and the graffiti. Of course, the street itself hasn't changed between the two observations, but this is almost irrelevant, as no one is aware of the 'true' street in its entirety. The same principle applies to every aspect of life, from the mechanism that decides which news stories grab your attention, to the personal qualities in others that you respond to or overlook. The result of this is that the 'world' in which we live is not an objective, distinct environment, but a model constructed in our own image. In the words of Alan Watts, the influential writer on Eastern religions, 'Reality is only a Rorsach ink-blot'. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, 'People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is a confession of character'.

[Timothy] Leary called these personal mental models 'reality tunnels'. Each person lives in a different reality tunnel from everyone else, and is personally responsible for constructing their own existential reality. To be truly 'free' it is necessary to recognise this for, in the words of the Discordians, 'Whatever you believe imprisons you. Convictions create convicts'. This is a difficult concept to grasp, but it is profoundly important in understanding both Leary and his influence. It is the concept that explains the post-modern move away from the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, which viewed reality as an absolute that could be understood through rational inquiry. Enlightenment thinkers assumed that everyone operates in the same reality, but that, Leary believed, was just not true on a practical level. Concepts, relationships and events were now relative, and could only really be understood when analyzed alongside the reality tunnels that created them.
That account of Timothy Leary's foretelling of social media with its reality tunnels, filter bubbles, selective algorithms and multiple realities comes from I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs. Leary, who immortalised the phrase 'Turn on, tune in, drop out', went on to write Chaos and Cyberculture which predicted that 'The PC is the LSD of the Nineties'. Many of us who came of age in the 1960s were influenced by the Moody Blues' In Search of the Lost Chord album with its track Legend of a Mind eulogising Timothy Leary. In 1972 Leary recorded the space rock album Seven Up with 'krautrock' band Ash Ra Tempel and also discussed working with the Moody Blues. But extradition back to America and a subsequent jail term intervened. In his biography John Higgs recounts how, while Leary was in solitary confinement in Sandstone Federal prison in Minnesota, he could hear someone walking up and down outside his window all night repeatedly singing Legend of a Mind with its refrain 'Timothy Leary's dead/No, no, no, no, He's outside looking in'.

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6 comments:

Philip Amos said...

I have never examined Leary's thought in depth, but certainly this excerpt from Higgs' book resounds with me. It is a corollary of my Transcendental Realism in philosophy that the world as we perceive is not reality. Further, that the world as we perceive it diurnally dies with us. Here, obviously, I come down to everyday matters, and the belief that we live in a world of illusion as we go about our business. The loving and faithful spouse we cherish is having an affair. The neighbour we think an antisocial curmudgeon because he doesn't respond to our greeting is, in fact, stone deaf. The work we think is prized by the boss he/she actually thinks only adequate. We form a conviction about an ethnic group grounded only in the actions of a few, or misrepresentations of them by bigots. We vote for the Party we think will most benefit us -- but it does not. Or that which will most try to balance the interests of all -- but it doesn't. That the plethora of such things as this are illusions is why they necessarily die with us. And together they are our lives. There is only partial escape from this prison of illusion, and that is to open the mind to other possibilities, other interpretations of the world around us. But, of course, social media's algorithms and filter bubbles only serve to reinforce the illusions, reify them, and rare indeed is the instance of one of those multiple realities transcending the tsunami of illusions.

Pliable said...

Quite so Philip. And increasingly as I look at current social media activity and classical music journalism I feel that I, like Timothy Leary, am outside looking in....

Philip Amos said...

Bob, your comment makes me think that in these days I am in the rather odd position of an outsider who is involved in certain ways. For example, last summer I gave two guest lectures and a seminar at a university, the subject being foreign policy conventions and diplomatic strategy, with emphasis on S.E. Asia and on the Middle East. So, I am involved. But in a sense, what the hell all that now means in the midst of the nescient mayhem issuing from Washington I don't really know. In as much as I cannot conceivably have sympathy for any of that, as much as I am totally estranged from it, I am by definition alienated, for I really cannot do anything about it. I'm not sure what the point of giving those lectures was. I am now an outsider and alienated from the mainstream of events. I just watch agog and aghast.

RE social media, oh, there I'm an outsider right enough. I totally ignore Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. Einstein said in a lecture, possibly, that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Well, social media chucks that dictum out the window. With now, I understand, a limit of 280 characters, almost all is simplification in the worst sense. From social media, most people now get the 'news'. A suggested dinner recipe to start, and then a reference to Trump's tweets of Britain First videos. No mention, however, of the fact that Trump thus, more so with his tweet to May, ended the 'Special Relationship'. Enough to say of Facebook that it is, in large part, a bedlam that its executives created and then lost control of, a tower of babel, all speech confounded. I except, of course, the pictures of the grandchildren.

Music journalism -- is there any? The prime example of a pretense to it is Lebrecht's farrago of errors, clickbait, gossip, and trolling in comments, a textbook case of rampant egotism. Interesting, I thought, that some time ago there was a concerted attack on Musicology. I've certainly noticed the pernicious influence of Post-modernism in that discipline, but so too have I in History -- my field. But there is still much of value published in both, and some musicological writing reminds me of the best of music journalists past. After all, many of those were musicologists, though not academics. And so it to Musicology that I now turn entirely for deeply knowledgeable writing. I don't even look at the music journalists in the newspapers -- I'm not an outsider where they are concerned -- they have alienated me. My true involvement now, what I am decidedly inside, is the very large number of fine organizations that seek to disseminate the approximation of truth we should fight for, and to battle the plethora of global evils we need to fight against. I leave Facebook and Twitter to those with nothing better to do -- except that Facebook is now one of the menaces we need to engage in combat.

Pliable said...

Philip, a musician friend who I have great respect for said to me recently that the Internet is a giant beast which if you don't ride it will crush you like running the bulls in Pamplona.

Pliable said...

Philip, on a more serious note the control exerted by social media in general and Facebook and Twitter over readership numbers is a major and deeply depressing problem. If you want to reach a readership beyond a small hardcore you have to play the social media game, and play it hard. I refuse to play the loathsome social media game, and you don't have to be a genius to work out where that is leading to.

Philip Amos said...

I find that a very depressing thought, Bob. But I also reflect that, mutatis mutandis, the most influential books of the past 2.5 millennia have not by a long chalk necessarily been the most read. Facebook I'm sure helped create the mini-mania over Fifty Shades of Grey, but Marcus Aurelius' Meditations will remain hugely more influential over the long haul. Lebrecht -- at the moment, it is my impression, engaged in protecting his own arse, having unleashed comments running more rampant than he anticipated -- has a huge following (about one-third of which I'm sure he wishes he didn't have), but his influence touches upon only the ephemera of the music business. Your writing runs deep, and those who follow it are in many cases of more significance in the world of music.