Filtered world views

This is the next post in the Latour series so feel free to skip it if you found the other posts boring.

I’d actually started writing this post several weeks ago, when I noticed that while I was reading Latour, certain points resonated very strongly with me, and others I was just kind of skimming over, waiting to get to the “good stuff”. And I noticed that what I meant by “good stuff” was stuff that supported the theories that I already believed. I was essentially only absorbing information that matched what I already thought. Using Latour’s terms, I was essentially skipping his “Constitution” of due process, and only accepting external inputs that matched my pre-existing mental hierarchy. No outside voices were making it past my filters.

In the case of Latour, I eventually slowed myself down and was able to absorb some of his other ideas, which helped to restructure my mental hierarchy. And I absolutely love it when that happens. My original cognitive subroutines post describes that moment when I connect a bunch of different ideas, and a whole set of synapses light up, as things shift into a recognizably better configuration. In Latour’s terms, my personal collective finds a new hierarchy that is able to absorb the new ideas that had been floating around my head. I try to keep my mind and eyes open for inputs that will help me to gain new perspective and let me find different ways of putting ideas together. I’m always looking for ways to add to the internal collective.

This is a good opportunity for a digression back to Latour’s book. He points out that modernism, as he describes it with its coldly rationalist viewpoint, is destructive with time. The final goal of modernist Science is a perfectly rational set of equations which is purely objective – everything else, all multicultural viewpoints and perspectives, have been weeded out of reality. He contrasts that with his idea of collectives that are continually encountering new external influences and finding ways to absorb them, such that the collectives are always growing. I like this picture, especially as applied to my individual collective – I am always reading and looking for new ideas, ones that will help me re-form and re-structure my mental hierarchy, as mentioned towards the end of this post. It seems like a much more life and growth-oriented viewpoint.

Getting back to my original point about filtered world views, the danger of not accepting Latour’s description of the temporal nature of reality, and instead believing in a One True Reality, is that you end up with the situation I originally found myself in, where I only accepted inputs that already matched my internal collective. I was not open to new inputs that might change my mind. And I would guess that most people operate like this.

I’ve addressed this point glancingly in posts like the one on conservative postmodernism but this sort of observation drives home for me the pointlessness of the “object-oriented” Western philosophy (which I describe in this post as our inclination to “try to stuff all of the properties of an object into the object itself rather than the network of relationships surrounding the object”. Huh. Now that I think about it, that “object-oriented” viewpoint is actually another restatement of what Latour calls Modernism, where the true object has an “essence” that exists outside of time, and that our poor human brains are too limited to fully perceive).

Anyway. My point is that because of the filters inherent in our internal collectives, our mental hierarchies, two people can look at the exact same thing and see completely different objects. One person sees the Confederate flag and sees a proud symbol of the Southern states, the other sees a flag symbolizing hatred and racism. Same object, different viewpoints.

And it becomes even more relevant in the case of information. Because of our filters, we only absorb information that matches our internal hierarchy. This comes up most often in the case of politics, when one person sees Bush as being presidential for ordering military action, and another sees him as being imperialistic. Those people live in fundamentally different worlds (or Latour-ian collectives), even though they are experiencing the same events. And that’s even before we get into the separate media that they consume.

This is also why Lakoff’s work on framing is so vital. By controlling the language, we can put information into a form that will get past people’s filters. If it matches up to their mental hierarchies, it sneaks right on in and start subverting some of those hierarchies from the inside. Which sounds horrible and Machiavellian, but the problem is that it works. People change their minds because of this stuff. And the conservatives are using it. So, given that we live in what is rapidly becoming a direct democracy, we can either take the high road and expect people to research issues and develop coherent platforms, or we can accept that they don’t, and fight back.

Man. Do you start to get the sense of what it’s like to live in my brain? In this post alone, I’ve linked Latour’s work with everything from electoral politics to my ideas about art to cognitive subroutines. Everything is linked in my head. It all fits together in some ungainly way. I didn’t even mention the part where the awareness of the temporal nature of reality is another aspect of being a good information carnivore or how I’d noticed the congruence between liberal arts and science myself, but didn’t follow it up, and of course wouldn’t have come up with a process as elegant as Latour’s.

It’s all connected. Everything informs everything else. This blog is my attempts to capture my internal collective on disk. And as it grows more coherent, and as I find the language to make the connections less fuzzy and easier to communicate, maybe I’ll be able to turn it into that book. But enough for now.

I start my new job tomorrow morning, so my time for blogging will probably decrease over the next few weeks while I get up to speed. But I think I’m mostly done with the Latour thread for now, so I’m okay with that. On to new and different topics.

13 thoughts on “Filtered world views

  1. Everything depends on everything else. Context matters. What you see depends on what you’re looking for.

    This applies to quantum mechanics, too…

  2. “And the conservatives are using it. So, given that we live in what is rapidly becoming a direct democracy, we can either take the high road and expect people to research issues and develop coherent platforms, or we can accept that they don’t, and fight back.”

    Very interesting post, but this one point is silly. The idea that one party is sitting in a lab, plotting how to manipulate people’s brains… I’ve skimmed through Lakoff’s book, but it seemed too highly partisan to be really worth much. Of course a Democrat will say that the Reps manipulate through culture and get people to vote against their economic interest, and the Reps will say that the Dems are demagogues who offer false solutions and promise money and help in return for votes. I think it is sad the point that some on the Democratic side have reached. Taking the argument to its logical conclusion, which you have the admirable frankness to do, results in an undermining in the faith in democracy. But there is an alternate conclusion. If you think of democratic politics as a game, then the loser must examine himself and alter his strategy to win. It does no good to cry and whine that the other side used some kind of sinister tactic to win, any reasonable person observing campaign season will see plenty of pandering to go around (although this year, because of the extended campaign, the Dems are engaged in an endurance pander-fest while McCain can sit back, sip on some Kool-Aid, and observe the festivities). Anyway, the point of this rambling post is that I think Lakoff’s conclusion which you hinted it is simply wrong. You can say “By controlling the language, we can put information into a form that will get past people’s filters. If it matches up to their mental hierarchies, it sneaks right on in and start subverting some of those hierarchies from the inside.” While I’m sure there is research to support this, forming basis for political strategy around it is doomed and unethical. Whatever one may say in a moment of cynicism, fooling the American people isn’t as easy as many pretend. The American people chose Clinton in 92 and 96 because a majority wanted him. They chose Bush (well at least in 04) because a majority wanted him. A losing side that reacts to defeat by trying to understand how the opposing side “tricked” the people, is doomed to defeat. Not only that, but the ensuing debate will not be very constructive. The proper conclusion to draw from the fact that many vote against their economic interest is that maybe their personal economic interest is not the most important issue to them. Maybe it violates their principles to seek economic assistance from the state. Who knows, there are plenty of reasons. Lots of people vote against their economic interests. Is George Soros being manipulated, his brain waves controlled by Democratic Party rhetoric? One could draw that conclusion, but the more reasonable and decent conclusion is that he cares more about other issues, the state of the world, the future of the country, whatever, than his own personal paycheck. Now why is a lower-class person any different? Are they not allowed to think about wider issues, to be republicans with a small r, concerned with the fate of the nation? Do you not think that they are concerned with such things?
    I hope this long response focusing on the political aspect isn’t too out of place on the blog. I just checked it out for the first time to do, good stuff.

  3. “Whatever one may say in a moment of cynicism, fooling the American people isn’t as easy as many pretend.”

    Nonsense. Look at how the GOP managed to frame the debate on the “Death Tax.” Simple turns of phrase or language are extensively researched by right-wing think-tanks. Phrases like “Death Tax” or “Pro-Life” are things that are focus-grouped, researched, and field-tested.

    There is a *lot* more discipline and focus on maintaining a very tightly controlled message on the right than there is on the left. Is that a good thing? It’s good for the GOP – they’ve been very good at message management, where the Dems have almost utterly failed.

    A lot of modern politics is about media manipulation and messaging, much more so than the *actual* content of the issues. Fooling the American public is *incredibly* trivial. Repeat a phrase three times at full volume with a dash of “terra” while speaking before an American Flag. Presto.

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