Disconnect to Connect – A Psychedelic Love Story

I must have been 13, looking up at a beautifully lit starry night at a camping site in the south of France. Questioning the nature of reality, like all kids do. For minutes on end I peered into the jet black sky with my gaze completely fixed. As I did this, I noticed that the stars started to move around in a jittery fashion. It made me feel rather disconnected. Even with my limited understanding of the world, this visual distortion – one that you can all try out yourself –  made me realise that reality is probably not only ‘out there’.  On the contrary – it is primarily being constructed by your brain as a representation of reality. The stars couldn’t possibly move around in reality. It was my fixed gaze that was conjuring up this illusion.

night(Cool stuff: I later figured out that you can also do this by staring at yourself in the mirror in a room with dimmed lights. Do this for a couple of minutes without averting your gaze or making overt saccades. You will soon notice that your face will become distorted and may even turn into grotesque grimaces or even animal-like faces. Try it!)

Four years later, I took magic mushrooms for the first time.

Now boy, this was real disconnection.

Although I was looking at a jet black sky again – this time at home – beautiful colours and patterns presented themselves to me – as the stars performed a  magnificent dance.

However, this time was clearly different. The stars moved even when I looked around intensively. This was no illusion. This was a hallucination.

It was a pubescent insight into a topic and subject that would follow me till this very day: psychedelic drugs

Psychedelic night sky
Psychedelic night sky

I have learnt a lot of important life lessons while under the influence of them – and I am very sure they could also help many others find the answers they are looking for. Magic mushrooms have given me ample opportunity to discover the worlds I once dreamt about as a young boy. Not only on a philosophical, but also scientific level.

I have taken them with friends, family – and lately, primarily by myself, and I have become infinitely intrigued by their power to open up your mind to new ideas and insights, especially when taken alone.

To such an extent that, every time that I have a solo psychedelic experience, I can’t stop thinking to myself – if only every person in the world had seen and felt this amazing experience – it would most definitely be a better place.

This idea was the main reason for my participation at a TedX pitch night hosted by a university in Amsterdam. My talk was dubbed : Disconnect to Connect – a psychedelic (self) love story, and even though I was not able to fully convince the jury to send me to the main event, I noticed a lot of positive feedback and curiosity from the crowd.

You are therefore, quite literally, looking backwards at the representations and ideas that are stored in your own mind

This curiosity, and the widespread public ignorance on the topic due to decades of backwards drug policy, made me decide that it would be wise to lay down a more extensive account on how magic mushrooms work and how they could help you in your personal development, which I wanted to do anyway if I’d got to speak for a good 18 minutes.

Whenever you take mushrooms – or any other 5-HT2a serotonin receptor agonist – the standard functional connectivity of rigid circuits within your brain diminishes, overall brain activity rises, and new temporary neural communication pathways are used. Since its effect is primarily on serotonin receptors, and serotonin can be viewed as the ‘mood’ neurotransmitter, it is not strange to see that this process can bring about feelings of eternal bliss, spiritual wonder, (sadly) horror, but primarily – insight. These receptors, are located all around your body, your gut, but primarily, the higher regions of the human cortex.

sophisticated colourful entopic hallucinations
Sophisticated colourful entopic hallucinations

Half an hour after ingestion, the blackness that you normally see in your closed eye lids starts to light up, and coloured particles gently move around your visual field. It is thought that this happens due to a change in relative important of information streams. Due to serotonergic innervation, higher cognitive top down information, what is used to interpret the visual information, gets the overhand over bottom up information from the outside world that is acquired through the eye. Since there is no new visual input when you have your eyes closed, your early visual cortex starts to present to you its own fireworks, without any need for outside information. Thus, the consistent geometrical patterns are a product of the wiring of the neurons that represent our visual field.  These moving particles soon start to assemble in overwhelmingly flowing and colourful geometrical patterns, called entopic hallucination. These patterns are almost identical to the architecture and imagery found in most religions and early civilisation, hence the idea exists that all religion is partly based on consumption of psychedelic substances.

Typical grid like entopic hallucinatory patterns
Typical grid like entopic hallucinatory patterns as seen in the minds eye as well as in religious and cultural ornaments

With enough training, concentration and a high enough dosage, entopic hallucinations can transform into eidetic hallucinations, which is the transformation of the geometrical patterns into actual representations of faces, animals and landscapes or otherworldly dimensions, which is done by even higher regions of your cortex.

You are therefore, quite literally, looking backwards at the representations and ideas that are stored in your own mind, or projecting your minds eye content on your eyelid. Surprisingly, this does not mean that you have direct control over this imagery. It comes and goes, based not on conscious, but unconscious thought. You are a mere spectator of your brains inner workings. A marvellous sight.

eidetic hallucination evolving from entopic hallucination
Eidetic hallucination evolving from entopic hallucination. Note the faces arising from the geometrical patterns.

(For a more scientific approach on the topic, read my review paper here or read Kent (2010) here)

This radical change in world perception, increase in bodily sensations and disruption of normal conscious thought due to the serotonergic excitation can altogether lead to feelings of great insight. This cognitive freedom tends to give you a more holistic overview of your world. Due to serotonergic increased neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create new synapses, there are also now associations and connections being made inside the brain, that were once impossible. New information is created out of the old. Old ideas can become coated in a layer of bliss or are revised.

If taken alone, it can do all of that, but on top of that, since no-one else is there to assist, comfort or help you,  it can connect you as close to the thing you call ‘you’ as you could possibly imagine.

It disconnects the thing that lives inside your hardwired brain, which reconnects a self that is different than the one you usually encounter when you look in the mirror.

Literally, and figuratively.

There is not only less recognition of the face that you normally see, but also of the idea of self. It is similar to how people don’t like seeing themselves on video tapes or how their voices seem distorted. Magic mushrooms place you in a dimension akin to this phenomena, but on the contrary – it feels good. It gives your brain the room and space to re-evaluate its connections without causing the conflicts of rigid thinking in the brain.

It strips you of immediate mortal desires and feeds you with a cascade of imagery, closed eyed hallucinations, thoughts and feelings never thought possible before. Moral insights that have the power to obliterate bad behavioural patterns and humbleness that would make Ghandi look like Trump.

There is a great sense of balance and unity. Simply divine.

Jesus must have been taking this stuff.

Unity of the mind
Unity of the mind

All in all, my discovery of solo psychedelic experimentation has been incredibly important in my personal development.

Not only due to the fact that once I am done with my bi-monthly trip, I instantly feel an unsurmountable urge to clean and tidy my apartment and room – to the great delight of my roommates.

I also have a great urge to clean and tidy and work on bettering myself. To show discipline and focus. It motivates the self when its stuck. It’s like applying an AED to the mind.

I draw up new plans, ideas for the future, and feel reimbursed in my quests in life. I feel more happy, positive, and secure.

Of course, this is a popularised and glamourized account of my experiences and the working of psychedelics in the human brain. Clearly, tons of other factors influence the richness and quality of the psychedelic experience. On top of that, there are definitely times where unnerving thoughts dominate, and I’ve had trips that did not end with a positive, but primarily pessimistic or melancholical vibe. Of course I do not follow up on every new plan of personal development. People don’t stick to every new years resolution either.

However, similar to the unpleasantness of the ayahuasca ritual, long term effects and memory recall of the experience are usually very positive, even though the initial experience can feel terrifying.

The question remains: What constitutes a successful solo psychedelic experience? How can you apply this? Based on my own experiences and the enlightening book Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason by James Kent –  the key component is structure.

I believe the positive effects can only occur whenever there is deliberate structure within the inherent chaos of the trip. Without structure, the experience can be overwhelming and dangerous, or underwhelming and boring.

Music acts as a timekeeping device, integrates the senses, makes the imagery more profound and is the vessel that your thoughts can attach to.

Traditionally, structure was provided by the shaman and the ceremonial setting. Chanting, music, rituals and certain preconceptions, ideas and explanations about what was happening to you gave a strong set and setting for a successful spiritual experience.

Typical shaman preparing a participant for a ayahuasca ceremony
Typical shaman preparing a participant for a ayahuasca ceremony

Hence, indigenous tribes thought they were not seeing the content of their brain, but believed they were visiting the elders in the spirit world or alien visitors from outer space.

Sadly, within a solo psychedelic experience, there is no chanting shaman. You are the shaman. Herein lies the power and danger of solo psychedelic experimentation.

Since there is no chanting, music is your main structure. All that I’ve explained above is only possible when there is adequate music entering your ears. It’s astonishing how strong the influence of music is on the psychedelic brain and the subjective experience it creates. Music greatly influences the quality and strength of the closed eyed imagery, as well as your appreciation of that what you are seeing. Since music taste is so unique, it is up to the person to beforehand make a selection of music that he seems fit. However, due to state that you’re in, ambient music is almost always the best choice. Preferably, repetitive, calm, trippy songs, without vocals. Vocals distract you of your inner speaking voice. You want to let your own voice free.

Music is your friend
Music is your friend

Music acts as a timekeeping device, integrates the senses, makes the imagery more profound and is the vessel that your thoughts can attach to. Researchers from the Jon Hopkins university found that without music, participants never reported reaching spiritual heights or feelings of divinity. Music is detrimental to a positive outcome and re-evaluation after the trip.

The second form of structure that you need is adequate knowledge on the topic. Knowledge on the preparation, body weight-dosage and ingestion of the substance, as well as possible side effects, duration, and peak-dosage levels. Basic knowledge on the brain’s visual system, hallucinations and consciousness is also advised. If you take these things to the table, chances are much more likely that you actually learn something from the experience instead of just being fairly confused for a couple of hours. In order to use psychedelics to help you investigate yourself, you do not want to be busy rationalising what is happening to you, asking questions when it might be over or being afraid that things might get out of control. Remember that you have no shaman to tell you these things during the experience.

You are the shaman.

Minds eye

Since you are the shaman, you also need a plan. Write down the things you want to think about or deliberate on beforehand. Place them in a logical, chronological order, ranked on personal importance, or inter-dependency. Read this list carefully before the effects start, and answer your questions directly after the effects wear off. Don’t bother thinking about writing down stuff during the trip on pen and paper. It will only ruin the experience. If you really feel like you need to remember everything, record the experience and vocalise your thoughts. Like dreams, you’ll forget 90% of the individual constituents of your trip. But like dreams, the information will come back if you apply structure.

All this structuring might come off as a little neurotic. Truly spiritual people or actual shamans might criticise me for the fact that I take away some of the mysticism of the experience by imposing such constraints. However, I believe that this is truly necessary.

What will the trip teach you?
What will the trip teach you?

Imagine the following: You’re going on a trip to South America, but you don’t plan anything in advance. You don’t speak Spanish, you don’t know the different cultures, and you don’t know where to start or when to stop your trip. You don’t know the history, nor the current political situation of the countries. You don’t bring a map, nor a telephone with internet connection to search for information.

What can you possibly learn from such a trip? What would be your take home message? Even though you are somewhere foreign and cool, it wouldn’t teach you anything. It would be a total chaotic disaster. You wouldn’t get far, and it might just as well end with you being captured and ransomed by a paramilitary group in the jungle or you turn yourself into jaguar lunch.

Similarly, a psychedelic trip, especially a solitary one, does not come without its dangers when you are unprepared.

But for a prepared mind that is yearning for meaning and answers, I would say that there is hardly anything more profoundly transformative and infinitely beautiful than a solo psychedelic experience.

Are you prepared?

Fake News is fake

As the American presidential campaign has likely come to an end, it has sparked a myriad of debates around the globe. Advocates of globalism, localism, nationalism, democracy, multiculturalism and minority rights have found plenty of new-found ammunition and are instilled with fresh vigour to further their causes. One of the outcomes is the sudden surge in the word fake news. As the media is grasping for straws and try to rationalise Trump’s victory, they are looking for scapegoats. Fake news might be one, and a dangerous one when blatantly accepted.

troubling

Just to be clear, fake news and click-bait article are real. Period. There are people operating on the net that make a nifty profit out of spreading such misinformation and creating websites as they easily attract customers, and thus selling advertisement becomes an easy profit. Whatever your intelligence or web literacy, we are all susceptible to feel that urge to click the screaming Buzzfeed headline that tells you all about THE 10 LATEST PICTURES THAT YOU HAVE TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE.

On the other hand, we have the satirical websites that we know as The Onion, De Speld and Wunderground. They wonderfully function as a mirror to society, and portray the weirdness of the current state of the world by twisting stories in such a manner that they preserve the original meaning but phrase them in a different light.

Both the above are easily identifiable for most – although for the latter not always the case – leading to hilarious online discussions as people fall for the obvious bait and submit outrageous reply’s in the comment section.

Something else is going on though.

If you look at Google trends, you can see a very sudden and steep rise in fake news queries in the year 2016, which started just after the elections ended.

Fake News
Fake news queries over time, taken from Google Trends

This rise might partly be caused by Melissa Zimdars, associate professor of communications at Merrimack College, who made a list of fake news websites, which has faced much critique. She originally designed the list as material for the course she is teaching, but soon found out that many people were interested in the topic and provided input to the list.

Many websites that are on the list host information that genuinely  represents the world view of people. More importantly, it seems that many fringes of extreme right conservative corners on the internet seem to be overly represented, whilst extreme left sites such as The Huffington Post stay out of sight (and even humorously bad journalistic(?) sites such as Buzzfeed are not listed). Although Breitbart.com and Infowars.com – both on the list – are also dubious with regards to their journalistic standards, they do give a voice to a large group of people who simply think differently than the narratives conjured by the main stream news. To discredit everything that is on the list as simply fake and discreditable comes across as censorship.

Luckily, Zimdars is aware of this. In an interview with usatoday.com she states that the “list identifies some fake news sites, some that may be misleading or unreliable that do report sometimes on actual events to various degrees to truthiness. Then there are sites that generally do okay reporting on stuff, but they rely on clickbait-style Facebook descriptions or headlines to encourage circulation, so sometimes those headlines don’t match with the articles’ content, and that can lead to misinformation.

Most people who first saw the list did exactly what most people do in the internet. Read the headlines – share. Reading is for losers, right? Because of this, the list has already been brought down, as she felt that people were misinterpreting it. She states that she doesn’t think people are actually reading the list and the context provided when they’re sharing it. She’s worried that the fake news list “might be perpetuating misinformation when that’s what it’s supposed to be trying to help”.

Personally, I think the latter is wholeheartedly true. But there is more to it.

There is something ominous about the term fake news. It makes my George Orwell’s 1984 radar tick.

7e4cc4d9b609c7e7234565b18dcf8649

The problem with fake news as a term is that it acts as a Boolean. In our westernised worldview that is heavily based on science, fake and truth tend to be viewed as absolute values. Something that can be measured accurately as if we are measuring the velocity of a falling apple. Something, or a statement, can either be true, or false.

Reality however, is much more complex than that. Although click-bait articles often report extremely dubious claims on a range of topics, there might still be some truthfulness in certain aspects of the reporting. With satire websites on the other hand, this layer of truth is hidden behind the abstract veil of satire or sarcasm, and obscured with obvious misinformation whilst preserving the actual information and statement it is trying to make. When we read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we all know that we are not actually reading about the personal lives on real animals, but the form in which it is written makes the complex nature of things easier to understand. Satire uses Occam’s Razor, and acts as a model to reduce phenomena to its most basic forms, and is then able to twist certain aspects of the story around, decoupling it from the original context so that it is able to reveal that which is hard to bring to light with normal reporting.

More importantly, fake also implies that somebody is deliberately ‘faking’ something, as a means to (mis)guide people towards a certain opinion or direction. This is obviously the case for click-bait and satire. The former as a means to make money off gullible people who click to be caught by advertisement, the latter to steer cognition towards thoughts that are otherwise impossible to conjure.

Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to teach people to be critical thinkers, than to silence opinions by branding it with an overarching term such as fake news

For the more ambiguous news sites and journalistic platforms that discuss information that is by many deemed to be conspiracy material, both click-bait and satire do not apply. They genuinely represent information that they deem accurate, just viewed from a different angle.

Zimdars states one the reasons she shared the list was that she was informed that when you Google search for ‘popular vote counts’, the first item that pops up was “70news.wordpress.com”, which according to her is a fake website, as it was stating that Hillary Clinton lost the popular vote.

According to the current tallies reported, Clinton indeed won the popular vote. However, most pre-election polls from the mainstream media also reported a 98% chance that Clinton would win. As a trained statistician and scientist, my alarm bells went berserk when the opposite happened. I therefore think it is not unwise to develop some suspicion to said sources. The thing is, 70news simply works with different information and chooses to highlight different sources. That doesn’t make it fake, but false at best. They made a case about illegal immigrants massively voting for the democratic party. Now I am not a lawyer nor do I have knowledge on American voting rights, but there have been concerns that this happened, and that it would be illegal. The influence that this would have would be significant, as ethnic minorities are the main voting base for democrats in America. There is no hard proof, but if you see how high the stakes are in modern politics (the total costs of the presidential campaign have been estimated to be 6.8 billion dollars), it’s not a crazy idea.

See, within media, there is always a filter, whether you like it or not. Even the most objective journalist is trapped in a maze of information of historical (re)writing, contemporary public opinion and the top down influence of management. You always have to chose which bits to show and which bits to obscure. A striking example is the following rather iconic picture – where the right was showed by CNN, and the left by Al Jazeera – originally taken from the picture in the middle. Together with the visual propaganda, a completely different narrative can be framed, that enforces policy of the status quo.

Media

 

As a response to the so called surge in fake news, president Obama recently stated : “If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems”. That’s good and all, but the problem is that Obama – and any other president – are actively running propaganda programs under their administrations, and thus often spread fake news themselves (for a clarifying read that covers the topic, see this article from Stanford University). We often seem to forget that media has historically originated as the long arm of the state, to influence the people according to national and international policy. Your populace doesn’t feel like going to war whilst it is geo-politically profitable? Let the media run a campaign where it deliberately highlights certain aspects whilst ignoring or demonising others. Within politics and media, this is nothing new. Everyone is aware of the power of media and it’s intricate ties to politics and policy makers, yet most of us are somehow blind to see that the main stream media outlets might often be more fake than the dubious websites portrayed to be actual fake news websites.

The term fake news matters, because it is downright censorship in disguise, likely to be used in the same manner as the term conspiracy theory

For example, the American and European populace were by media campaigns lead to believe that going to war in Iraq would be a good thing for the Iraqi people. 13 years later, we’re anonymously embarrassed by the situation. The same thing is currently happening in Syria, where the main narrative is to save the Syrian people from the horrors of the regime, whilst America and NATO allies are the heroes, whilst probably doing more to destabilise the country than Assad ever could. The fact that the common go-to media outlets seem trustworthy, might thus more have to do with the fact that they have a certain template and feel to it that we’ve we have all been exposed to since birth, and thus seems and feels legitimate, whatever they write. That should not mean that we should actively make a divide between what is ‘fake’ and ‘truthful’, based primarily on the opinions of only one side of the game.

Instead of making a list of what is fake and what is not, and calling each other out on their fake-ness, we actually already have an entirely different tool at our disposal.

Our brains.

Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to teach people to be critical thinkers, than to silence opinions by branding it with an overarching term such as fake news, which discredits an incredibly big portion of human dialogue based on very vague criteria?

Furthermore, there are probably bigger online content problems that the world is facing. Click-bait and sponsored content ridden with ads are on the rise, dumbing down the average shown content on important news outlets. Whilst Facebook is also actively trying to fight fake news, they are completely neglecting the rise of distracting click & tag posts that show up in people’s feeds. An avid Facebook user myself, I’ve spent quite some time liking, disliking and following the things I am interested in. All in vein, as 50% of my feed is filled with random useless posts those linked below, simply because they spread like wildfire and get 130.000 comments. The same is happening to YouTube (excuse me for using a PewDiePie video to prove a point, but frankly, the guy is probably the most knowledgeable person on the platform).

Screenshot_20161208-193317
I really am not interested in this Facebook. Stop shoving it in my face.
Screenshot_20161208-193249
hahahahahaha so interesting

So, even if you’ve made it this far into my article, you might think: What does it matter? The term fake news matters, because it is downright censorship in disguise, likely to be used in the same manner as the term conspiracy theory (which was actually introduced by the CIA back in 1967 to downplay political opponents). Although conspiracy theorists obviously exist, and some are downright ridiculous, have no mounting evidence and balance on the edge of borderline schizophrenia, the term itself has had  a much larger impact than just silencing tin foil hat UFO abduction experts.

The term fake news is likely to follow the same course, when social networks are forced to flag and silence information that contain certain content. Currently, the big tech giants are already working together and sharing information to silence ‘extreme content’, where they refer to extreme content as terrorist information. It’s hard to argue that fighting terrorism is a bad thing, but if you think a little bit longer about the implications of this development, we could be in for a serious problem. The same technology allows for any type of content to be monitored, silenced or removed. And if that’s not creepy, I don’t know what is.

Fake news is not something organic that came up out of nowhere. The internet has been filled with dubious information since it’s birth. It is an calculated term, that might prove to be a dangerous as it is going to be deliberately used to silence opposition.

Next time you see an article that is hammering on the elimination of fake news, take that in mind.

 

Why Trump might be a blessing, not an attack on left-wing values.

People worry that because of Trump, America, and possibly the world, will go to shit. They worry that their rights will suddenly evaporate. Although it is reasonable to assume this based on his past public performances and debates, it is probably misguided. The thing with presidents is, they come into office with a million restraints. They can’t just barge over everything that is laid down in the past in the form of law, culture, and popular opinion. You can’t change a country within a mere 4 years, even if you have a slight majority in the Senate. Like any switch of boards within a company, first you clean up the mess the last board left you, then you start working on your own policy. As was the case with Obama, there won’t actually be that much radical change as he promised and things are likely to meander on the way things meander. You can already tell this from Trump’s inauguration speech, where he toned down on almost every subject, and called for a united America for everyone, regardless of religion and ethnicity.

For those who have supported the Democrats through and through, Trumps election might actually prove to be a good thing for Democrats and the left-wing, not only in America, but all over the globe. By electing a controversial, risky and outspoken person as Trump for president, the Republicans, right-wing and conservatives alike, have possibly nailed their own coffin shut for good. As the American president is the world’s most known public figure, the left has been given the opportunity to unite against a common enemy represented by the right in a way unprecedented in history. Is this necessarily a good thing? Probably not. America’s political climate is already highly polarised (which is actually rather logical with a two-party system) and continues to influence the political campaigns in other nations as well.

We can already tell this by the amount of celebrities, main stream media outlets and other politicians who have branded Trump as the next Hitler. This scorn will only increase, as the left-wing opposition will try to make sense of what just happened. It will make Democrats seem even more sympathetic and likeable than is already present in the main stream media, and Republicans even more racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and bigoted (just some fine words I picked of my Facebook feed that we’re generalised towards all that voted for Trump). Republicans will never ever be able to wash away the social scorn that is being imposed upon them. Although I live in the Netherlands, I woke up this morning reading messages that for 99% consisted of people expressing that they were ‘utterly shocked’, ‘out of words’ and making apologies all over for their ‘retarded’ fellow countrymen. Many stated that the world as we know it has ended.

Kill trump
People are clearly outraged at the outcome. Not very smart to publicly send death threats to the new president. Pretty impulsive, non thinking and uncaring.

If only this outrage and energy is channelled and harnessed in a next democratic campaign where they have a good candidate such as Sanders – one that that speaks to the people, instead of being pushed in your face by her sheer political power – the leverage of the left will vastly increase, not diminish. This effect will especially be strong if Trump seems to be unable to shake off the restraints that are imposed on those who enter the white house, and can’t do the things he has promised to those who supported his candidacy. This is highly likely, as his economic and political plans are not clearly outlined, and much rests on speculation.

So yes, Trump said some truly horrendous and mind numbing stuff – many many times. It is fine to be outraged or hurt by that. Yes, he probably is better at campaigning and rallying than actually reigning the most powerful nation on the globe.

However, Trump was elected democratically, and we should all respect this if we still believe that we actually live in a democratic world. Ironically, it is the Democrats who can’t get to terms with this idea, and now demonise all that oppose their views. In itself, not very democratic.

Only time will tell whether or not the doom scenario’s will prove to be left-overs of the harsh propaganda battle that played out over the past 2 crazy political years or literal descriptions of the future reality.

According to the republicans, the world as we knew it would end. It didn't.
According to the Republicans, the world as we knew it would end. It didn’t.

All in all, 2016 truly was a crazy year for politics. But maybe that craziness, is what the political system yearned for after years of stagnation. Whether or not you want to Make America Great Again or chant for Hope and Change, to achieve both within the political climate of the status quo is horribly ineffective.

For now, we should all watch the South Park episode ‘About Last Night… ‘, and mentally swap the apocalyptic panic that the republicans experienced when Obama got elected, with that what we currently see around us – and maybe even – laugh a little, amongst the panicked frenzy, and look to the future for the next opportunities that lie ahead.

 

Our Utopia : Their Dystopia

At times it feels like we have already arrived in 802.701 AD. The 802.701 AD as described in Wells’s The Time Machine, that is. Although written in 1895 as an attempt to predict the human condition hundreds of thousands years later,  it is strikingly close to the current state of the entertainment dominated Western World, and should heed us warning.

For those who haven’t read the novel I will provide a short summary. The antagonist travels forward in time to find Earth inhabited by two humanoid species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. Whereas the Eloi live a banal life of ease on the surface of the earth, the Morlocks live underground and excluded, tending machinery and providing food, clothing, and infrastructure for the Eloi.

The Eloi have become this way due to solving all problems that required strength, intelligence, or virtue, turning them dissolute and naïve. They form a society of small, elegant, childlike adults of sub-human intelligence, who are incapable of performing much work; rather, they live to feed, play and mate. The antagonist tries to communicate with the creatures, only to find that they lack the curiosity or discipline to care about anything else than their frivolous lives.

The Morlocks on the other hand, slave away with the machinery and technology that makes it possible for the above mentioned paradise to exist. As such, the antagonist thinks of their relationship as that of lords and servants, with the Eloi ruling over the Morlocks respectively. On second notice, he finds out that their relationship is not one of lords and servants, which is due to their lack of intelligence, not very surprising, but of livestock and ranchers. The antagonist theorises that true intelligence is the result of and response to danger; with no real challenges facing the Eloi, they have lost the will,  intelligence, and physical fitness of humanity at its peak, and hence result to a life of feeding, playing and mating. Nothing else speaks to them any longer.

There are many ways to interpret the symbolism that Wells’s scenario sketched, and it could be applied in many sociological and political theories. From my point of view, that of an adolescent that has done his fair share of partying, I would like to focus on something specific, as it gives an intriguing look at what I would like to call the party lifestyle. Bear in mind, that I could’ve tackled anything that is within the boundaries of the mass entertainment industry, such as television, video-games and the internet.

I would like to state foremost that in no way I am attacking anybody personally. However, a quick look around at a one of your closest (electronic) music festival, Facebook and Instagram page makes me realise that it hasn’t taken hundreds of thousands of years for some of us to turn into Eloi ; it was a matter of decades.

Tomorrowland 2016. That's a lot of people
Tomorrowland 2016. That’s a lot of people

Thousands of adolescents flock to the fields every summer, spending their money on (overpriced) tickets, clothes, food, drinks and drugs. They dance around in perfect matrimony.  It is often stated by those who frequently attend such festivals that this is the ultimate form of pleasure; spending time with likewise people on a big field of grass, dancing and drinking. The key to fully enjoying this is to forget about everything else and ‘live in the moment’, a buzz phrase that is used over and over again to promote this certain idea of pleasure and fun. As the seasons shift, the whole circus moves from the plains to the more gloomy clubs and house parties, but the scene remains outspoken. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing this as well, albeit some while ago.

This is nothing new on the horizon. Music festivals, fairs and common gatherings are inherent to the human state and have been around since the down of civilisation. Contrary to what is happening now, these old festivals and gatherings were often linked to historical events, religious holidays or rooted in cosmology and the seasons of the year. Many of these are still around today, in the form of mid-summer night festivals, national holidays or Christmas. What is new, is the sheer magnitude and frequency of these types of events.

Exceptions aside,  the act of clubbing and electronic music festivals used to be a thing for a more select and especially small group of people. Besides that, big parties such as Thunderdome that started in 1992 were (bi)-annual gatherings. Like Christmas, something to look forward to over a long period of time. The first house and techno parties in the Netherlands were completely deserted, and club owners had to do their very best to sell the type of music to the Dutch public. Those who did go went there purely for the music and could be seen as purists.

In current times, many just seem to go there for the lifestyle. To see and be seen; to have something to do in your leisure time and fill your weekend with. This has evolved to a point where almost all adolescents who would like to apply for the title ‘popular’, are somewhat obliged to join in on the craze at least at some point in their lives. I visited my first festival around 7 years ago. Due to its increased popularity, I have seen the amount and frequency of different festivals and parties grow tremendously since then.  It is hard to find a weekend that does not have at least a couple festivals in Amsterdam alone, let alone the rest of the country. The situation is presumably similar in many other first world countries although not as prevalent as The Netherlands.

The establishment was not particularly happy.
The establishment was not particularly happy with the second summer of love.

Although big musical festivals were already around, electronic music festivals saw the light in a different way. What started as big MDMA -fuelled gatherings of people on the English countryside in the 1988-1989 infamous second summer of love, has in a mere 25 years evolved towards a more capitalistic, carefully marketed multi-million business. An entire new way to spend all this beautifully created leisure time and money that we as adolescents have come to enjoy.

The tone and symbolism have stayed throughout the years ; love and acceptance, not surprisingly, still fuelled by occasional entheogen drugs consumed by many of its visitors. At face value, there seems to be nothing wrong with any of this, and that might indeed be the case. However, most religions promote love and acceptance while still fuelling many conflicts around the globe. It might thus be too naive of a conclusion to state that love and acceptance is actually all there is to it. I would like to propose that in its very nature, these new trends in entertainment in the form of festivals are closer to a form of escapism, rather than love, and for that it deserves thorough scrutiny.

I would concede that it’s rather pessimistic and rude to simply state that this lifestyle is degenerate, or bad. I do not want to come off as a backwards conservative who does not want to accept new developments. Similar voices might have gone up during the rock era, where hundreds of thousands gathered to see Metallica play, and still do. Having fun  and playing around is detrimental to the human condition and just maybe, having fun the way many of our adolescents are having fun is meant to be our current and next generation to come. Fun however, is highly subjective, therefore overrated, and should not cloud ones critical judgement and view of the world we live in.

In one of the passages from the Time Machine, the antagonist encounters an Eloi that fell in the water and couldn’t swim. To his surprise, its peers did not rush to help but left it to drown, as they were too busy eating, playing and mating. Besides their lack of altruism, they simply had no skills that were of any use in that situation. In that sense, it would be better for everybody to just carry on; live in the moment. The past is what it is, and the future is not yet there; why worry, why think. Focus on fulfilling your own needs in the here and now, seems to be the mantra. Individualism grown to grotesque proportions.

Although the less intoxicated people at festivals would probably accurately calculate the danger and henceforth rush to help, it is not the analogy I would like to make. The poor Eloi who was drowning unattended does not represent a fellow festival-goer, but those who live outside the bubble of love and acceptance. As is the case with religion, love and acceptance is easy to preach for in-group members, but is historically proven to come to a grinding halt when confronted with out-group members. Although the bubble of love and acceptance might seem like a Utopian paradise at first, as is the case in The Time Machine, its existence is only possible due to the churning of the machinery underground and the relentless slaving of the Morlocks. Without it, it ceases to exist.

In reality, the apparent paradise that is called the music festival is similarly only possible due to the churning of the capitalistic machinery at work. As is the case with the Morlocks, most of this machinery is out of sight – not underground – but simply so far away for our naïve eyes to see. The machinery is the capitalist western-centric wheel that keeps the global economy turning by exploiting underdeveloped countries far away, hidden in the obscure hierarchical layers of behemoth economic and political institutions that make up our modern nation states. Through the state of abundance it creates, it is capable of simulating overwhelmingly positive alternate realities, simultaneously clouding our minds for the actual state of the world and the reasons why most of us in the West have the privilege of spending so much leisure time on frivolous things without having to actually work that much for it.

While we might grovel at the fact that we have to work a couple of extra days a week to afford that new 600 euros iPhone so we are ensured of taking the best selfies at Dekmental Festival, parallel to our experiences, hundreds of impoverished Chinese are slaving away for significantly longer periods of time just to assemble that piece of technology that is about to make your life as fantastic as it is.  As we speak, around 3.000.000.000 human beings (I’m writing it out on purpose as we often fail to grasp the vastness of numbers when downplayed to millions and billions) that live and breathe just the way we do live on less than 3 dollars a day and have access to hardly anything nor chances to grow out of that poverty by their own will.

2016 Rio Olympics - Opening ceremony - Maracana - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 05/08/2016. People watch fireworks explode over the Maracana from the roof of their home in the Mangueira favela, or slum, as the Olympic opening ceremony unfolds. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes
2016 Rio Olympics – Opening ceremony –

Rio’s 2016 Olympics are a prime example of the gut wrenching divide in wealth, illustrated by a viral picture of kids looking at the baffling luxurious opening from their hillside favela shack, while Samsung happily markets it’s latest smartphone with the slogan ‘sponsoring a world without barriers’. Entertainment and fun shrouds the fact that we are all participating in an incredibly uneven global system that feeds on the poor and returns to the rich, but since we’re all living in our bubble of love and acceptance, we can’t see reality for what it is.

In our bubble, we’re happily spending at least 60 dollars on a single festival. This is already an astronomical number compared to what the majority has, just to go about their daily lives, was it not for the fact that this amount is easily surpassed by the (relatively) sickening amounts of money some of us make in a day (I once earned 280 euro’s in a day refilling stocks at the local supermarket).

That’s a good thing, for us adolescents. Currently, partying isn’t particularly cheap, primarily because it has turned into a business, instead of a non-profit gathering of like-minded people as was the case in the second summer of love. You are there as a consumer first, however lovely the marketed message is. Because of this, attending festivals and parties can be a huge financial drain (prepare to spend €8 on a not so well assembled hamburger). Especially in bigger Western cities,  where minimum wages are quite low compared to expenditure in housing and other services that one needs, this poses a problem.

Music Festival
Dekmental Festival

Due to its incredible high entertainment and social value, partying could be considered a super-stimuli for adolescents (see http://www.sparringmind.com/supernormal-stimuli/ for a fun illustration). This often leads to situations where the only money and time available is primarily spent on this lifestyle. While it is certainly not a new phenomenon for adolescent students to trash their income on booze and leisure time, we must not forget that it was historically only possible for a small amount of the population to indulge in such non-productive behaviours,  as only a sliver of the population went to study at universities, and those who did received additional checks from the government. All of this has changed dramatically. Around 45% of our adolescents attend higher education on graduate level and higher. There are no more checks from the government. Whenever your money runs out in the current situation, you would have to work longer hours, or loans are provided, given that you pay them back once you’ve graduated.

This leaves those who actively live the party lifestyle in the situation where there is less money for other, evenly or more worthwhile things. Obviously, it is everyone’s personal freedom to decide on what to spend his or her money, but we should ask ourselves if our (young) adolescents who are already heavily exposed to this lifestyle by marketing efforts and social media even have a choice. People negatively judge the decision of a drug addict to spend all his money on drugs instead of food, shelter personal development and future investments. The same could be stated for party people, when they decide to spend all their money on tickets, transportation, cloths, booze and quite ironically, drugs.

Even Nicholas Cage doesn't like to work dead end jobs.
Even Nicholas Cage doesn’t like to work dead end jobs.

Adolescents and students are thus pushed to work dead end jobs to provide them with enough money to sustain this party lifestyle that is typically glamourized through popular culture and social media. The message ‘just do whatever the f*ck you want as long as you are having fun’ (and spend your money to keep our consumerist economy from crashing) is heard wide and clear through the public arena. These engaged people end up spending quite some time on planning, attending and talking about parties, doing all of that in repeat (for many, every weekend). Furthermore, it is not uncommon to spend the day after in bed, recovering from the intense dancing sessions and significant hangover. Often, there are after-parties or ‘weekenders’ that  easily stretch the time period to a 24+-hour period of partying, basically rendering multiple days of your week immune to anything productive, besides, spending quite a lot of money and enjoying oneself.

So what does this party lifestyle return, besides fun, romantic endeavours and an empty wallet? Could we learn something from the unlucky relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks?

In the novel, the Eloi serve as livestock for the Morlocks, as the Murlocks do not have anything to eat underground. During the night, the Morlocks, scared of light, ascend to the surface and hunt the Eloi, who, waning in their utopian decadence, accept this and don’t resist.  The Morlocks make sure not to eat all of the Eloi, as the Eloi need the time to feed, play and breed, as to not deplete their only source of food. In return, the Morlocks build and sustain the cherished paradise, so the Eloi can have fun.

If there is any truth in the resemblance between our current generation and the Eloi, that would mean that in some way, you are being taking advantage of whilst oblivious by whom or for what reason, and in addition, you just do not care. In return, you get just enough things to enjoy yourself  without getting overly suspicious of the entire situation. This is not, how people experience nor see this.

Transcending experiences
Transcending experiences

In reality, people often mention the positive effects of making connections and meeting new people. This of course, does happen, and could lead to fruitful friendships. However, most of the time, these encounters are superficial and will only hold in the context of the party, as this feeling of friendship and connection is based primarily on the substances you’ve both taken and the setting you are both in. Although these connections and friendships could last and provide you with new meaning in life, when both drug and setting are gone, what is left is not likely to pass the test of friendship and does not bear the resemblance of a true connection.

Besides that, there’s the good old ‘to blow off steam’ argument. Although catharsis has multiple times been disproved by science, this actually makes a strong case. We live in a complex and hectic world where we constantly need to inhibit our urges and behaviours. Releasing this tension together with a community of peers might have wonderful effects on both mental and physical health. However,  if you need to blow off steam twice a week, then you are probably not doing very well for yourself the other 5 days. On top of that, most partying is done on copious amounts of alcohol and drugs, detrimental for a healthy life. Furthermore, there are many different ways to blow off steam. To vent our modern frustrations and stress through a party lifestyle could hardly be viable in the long run.

We can conclude that there are probably many reasons, some more valid than the other, for liking this life style and leave that for what it is. It is now time to pull out my glass bowl and peer into the world of speculation. My first prediction is that due to the current longevity and frequency of many people in the party lifestyle, there comes a point where many don’t really know what to do with themselves or their time without partying. If it might fall away, they will be more inclined to live a life of purchased happiness, where buying experiences is the only way to find personal happiness, as they are conditioned to achieve happy emotions this way. Although it is very natural for human beings to go through a phase of rebellion and partying during adolescence, a phenomenon that  has been studied and observed cross culturally, our current generation reigns supreme.  For many, this doesn’t seem like a phase, rather a worldview that they would love to cling to forever, continues well through their mid and late 20’s, and its future societal effects remain unknown

When you look at some of the older festival such as Awakenings, you will see many 35-55 year olds walking around, fossils of the early glory days and the start of the Amsterdam nightlife. These people were part of a small subculture. Most people in our society did not know electronic dance music, and when they did know about it, many disliked it. Currently, we have a situation where at least 50% of adolescents are into this kind of music and these kind of parties. Although there are so many venues and festivals, many are heavily crowded or sell out. Amsterdam Dance Event and 5 Days Off are the epitome of this culture, where it is rather seen as abnormal if you haven’t at least attended a single party. General conversations are very easily diverted towards the amount of parties you are going to at these events or the festivals you’ll attend this summer, in the same way you would ask if someone is going on a holiday. As if it’s a given, instead of a choice.

Constantly feeling like shit makes people docile.
Constantly feeling like shit makes people docile.

I wonder what will happen in the future when this lifestyle, apart from the drug-habits, seems to be rather addictive. What will happen when not 1%, but 50% of our adolescents are hooked on the super-stimuli that is called the festival? What if the combination of music, sun, friends, drugs and ‘not thinking about anything’ is too tempting for our immature minds to resist. What if we are creating a generation that is more worried about which Utopian paradise to attend, what DJs are playing and what to wear than it is worried about the current state of their country and the world, or learning the skills that have actually made it possible for such paradises to appear in the first place? We might find ourselves hiding in our small community Eloi Utopia’s, blind to the fact that the world around us has actually evolved towards a Brave New World-esque Dystopia.

Why things are the way they are, is much beyond the scope of this article. I might be completely wrong about many of the observations or analogies that I’ve made. On purpose, I have exaggerated the examples given to prove my point. Maybe our current generation is simply searching for meaning, instead of fun, as our capitalist and secular societies do not readily provide it to everybody. However, for whatever obscure reason or powers at play, we might be in the process of creating our first generation of naive and dissolute Eloi’s that lack the skills that we need, instead of dedicated and motivated clear minded individuals that aim to create a better world for everybody and not just live to please themselves.

Every human being is alike in the sense that we all have 24 hours to spend each day. How free you are to decide on how to spend that time has historically been a marker on the state of country and thus of the individual. If many are temporally, financially and emotionally chained to the cycle of festivals and the party lifestyle (or any other form of super-stimuli tier entertainment) due to their incredible entertainment value, it also implies there is less time for building strong careers, reading, self-reflection or other acts of bonding that could promote and foster friendships and (romantic) relationships. The Eloi have become the way they are due to solving all problems that required strength, intelligence, or virtue, turning them dissolute and naive. Although battling multiple hangovers a week requires plenty of strength and virtue, as the future generation, it should not be where our time and effort should be directed.

Dystopia

Although it might seem as innocent fun at first, the Eloi simply can’t do anything worthwhile with the lives they were given, because they grew up to relish in blissful ignorance. Similarly, dancing, bonding, fist pumping, forgetting about the world and living in the moment is fun and useful, but harmful in excess, and definitely won’t prepare you for the actual world beyond the safe boundaries so carefully put up and guarded by first world countries and is therefore dangerous when embraced as an actual lifestyle. The Time Machine describes how the Eloi live in small communities within large and futuristic, yet slowly deteriorating buildings, doing absolutely nothing to prevent this decline from happening. If this is of any resemblance to our present or future, now would be the time to start acting and take a good long look in the mirror to see whether we see a self-determined Human, or a decadent Eloi.

After all, isn’t fun highly overrated?

De-schooled Society

Going to Uni. It was one of the only certainties I had whilst growing up. I liked that certainty. It felt as a safe and wise thing to do. What could possibly go wrong once you’ve obtained that long awaited diploma?

Now that I am the proud owner of said diploma, I realise that many things can go wrong. For starters, choosing a subject that fits you. We choose a bachelor’s degree at the age of 18. Supposedly, we’re educated and informed enough (in reality, I spent 30 minutes with my school counsellor and went to two open-days) to know what ‘we’ as adolescent youngsters truly want in life.

Although I am extremely glad to have picked psychology at the time, as it is still one of my biggest interests, roughly 30% of all students switch tracks completely at least once, which is rather disturbing. We can safely assume that many more stick to their original plan, but are unhappy doing so.

Secondly, many diploma’s do not provide people with any real-life job opportunities. Instead of nudging my interests towards cognitive science, I could’ve chosen the master Clinical Psychology, only to find myself waiting in line – unemployed – to get any further training as a clinical psychologist (nobody cares about your master degree in Clinical Psychology – unless you make really good coffee).

So in the worst case, our university model forces adolescents to make decisions they are not well equipped for, only to leave them with a diploma they do not want and no job that fits the diploma. Rather disappointing.

Based on this, there is a growing consensus that the model of the university itself is in dire need of revision. My professor of Serious Games gleefully joined in on the canon, and kind of stated that we need to de-school society.

According to his view, or at least what I understood from it, our current university system, like other man-made institutions, are made to control the behaviour of people, and since people need more freedom, we are almost ready to abolish many said institutions. Bolstered with the supposed lack of teaching effect within universities (very low), or at least not as good as what you would expect for the highest form of education within our world, people like him make quite a good case.

Personally, I do not agree with this view. Besides the irony that my professor obtained part of his knowledge by intensively studying several subjects at universities,  this view heavily rests on the assumptions that individuals – by default-  are true autodidacts. Although this might be the case (philosophical debates aside), it assumes that all people will start learning stuff just for the sake of learning and to obtain (practical) truths about the world. Although some around us readily do this, many more of us don’t. This lack of will or interest is then attributed to the way material is presented within a curriculum – sluggish, boring and slow. Again, the university or institution is to blame.

Are they though?

If we for one, were to assume, that the university as we know it disappears, and everyone starts learning what they want by following their own combination of MOOC’s, what would we expect?

I would expect that both the problems we encountered earlier still exist. People of young age still have no clue what they want (with choice-stress only skyrocketing if everything is available to everyone at any time) and many people would still chose combinations of MOOC’s that do not lead to any combination of marketable skills. If we would want to have any form of quality control (which is one of the primary functions of a university), it would probably take on a form of a digitalized university based around our current models. Therefore, de-schooling society more or less sounds like digitalizing society.

Then of course, it is not the universities only job to teach people certain marketable skills, more so to get them acquainted with a certain mind-set or intellectual way of thinking.

This is where I see the greatest of issues. When universities get fully digitalized, and interactive  MOOC’s designed by the university staff takes over most of the curriculum, would youngsters truly grasp this way of thinking?

Since these MOOC’s will operate in the same location as all the other digitalized experiences  with the internet increasingly being filled with user generated content, we first need to ensure that our new students of life can accurately tell high and low quality information apart, as this was one of the implicit goals of the university. For most untrained people, it is already impossible to discern between bogus facts and information that are actually obtained by valid scientific inquiry. These human factors that come into play , even more complex and intricate than those encountered while designing expert systems such as self-driving cars, should not be undervalued or overlooked, simply to make ‘learning’ more fun and engaging.

Teaching effects at the university might be sloppy, but how do we ensure that our (future) generations of multi taskers are actually paying attention to that what they are viewing on their screens, while dozens of other applications call for attention?  How do we make sure that a digitalized university, truly uses its authority in the production and spreading of high class knowledge? How do make sure that the curriculum is not dumbed down to such an extent in order to make it fun, that people cannot discern anymore between real science and the rubbish we encounter at thespiritscience.net? Already, the internet is starting to become an echo chamber of misinformation. We can only imagine what would happen if our universities would fully enter this fray where clicks and attention work as a currency.

After all, isn’t fun highly overrated?

Of course, I am just exploring the extremes. Chances are, that many theoretical lectures will indeed become MOOC’s very soon. Virtual reality will probably bring some nifty innovations to the table. Augmented reality might suffice for doing practical’s at home.

Still, as a student, I love being at Uni. It inspires me, to think about all these bright minds walking around. And although change is definitely needed, as it is always an invited guest, we should be wary of these changes. Yes, university might be boring and uninspiring for many. However, maybe we shouldn’t ask the question how to make university more engaging, but why so many of our fresh new minds seem to lack the wonder that makes the university such a vibrant and wonderful place.

A Game Named Life

From Animal Play to Transformative Experiences through Life-Like, Hyper-Realistic Full Immersion VR environments infused with serious games elements

Step 1 : Mammals and birds have the brain capabilities to play (games) in order to simulate future stressful situations. This will help them adjust their stress response as to be more successful in the future when shit gets real.

Step 2 : As acts of play cannot possibly simulate every important situation within environments, animals developed the ability to dream, that is, to simulate an infinite variety of future (stressful) scenarios based upon the trained neural network acquired through observation and play

Step 3 : Since dreaming is involuntary – its contents volatile and often ridiculous – homo sapiens developed the ability to convey future stressful situations by means of stories, narratives if you will, inevitably leading to the birth of human-invented drawings, art, plays, theatre and literature. Often, these outbursts of human creativity had its origin in the (actual) dreams of the creator.

Step 4 : These new inventions were inherently passive and knew few interactions. It merely consisted of  absorbing the prepared information in the hope it was put to good use by the receiver. The next step was to build these narratives within the framework of an actual video-game, giving rise to the interactive and immersive qualities of the stories that unfold while playing video games. These video-games, like regular board games, also introduced the concept for playing ‘just for sheer entertainment’, while all other forms of human narrative telling had the function of teaching other humans something important (drawings of dangerous qualities of wild animals, Greek tragedies, romantic novels), which could of course be enjoyable alongside its main function.

Step 5 : The incredibly stable exponential growth of computing power rapidly turned the visual capabilities of video-games and digitally generated content into almost life-like 3D visualizations projected onto 2D screens. The gradual improvement of not only graphics, but game design, mechanics and psychology, led to the development of serious games, alongside a widespread cry for new ways of learning. Like video-games, serious games can be enjoyable, but their primary goal is to prepare or practice certain skills more efficiently than was otherwise deemed possible. Step 5 is where we currently find ourselves

Step 6 : Although ultra-high graphics, plausible interactive scenarios, sound psychological theories and attractive ways of visualization ensured that serious games had decent training effects on most humans in many different fields of application such as the military and healthcare, many overlooked how serious games could train soft skills as well as hard skill. The Forest was the first serious game to actively pursue the goal of improving cognitive, inter-and-intrapersonal skills of human beings, preparing them for the 21st century. It did so, by using virtual reality (VR), moving away from the standard way of viewing information from a 2D screen, and actually immersing oneself into a parallel, life-like reality.

Step 7 : Like video-games, VR was rather crude at first, and has seen a learning curve for developers and designers. After sufficient time, humans have created such vast amounts of (gamified) virtual environments and scenario’s and have seen such a steep rise in performance and technology, such as haptic technology, brain-computer, sound and olfactory interfaces, that like dreams, there is an almost infinite amount of possible environments and scenario’s where anyone with a VR-set, regardless of background, can equally practice, play, prepare and learn, significantly reducing human errors and suffering within actual reality. We are all animals. We all like to play. If we can all play together in our virtual reality, we can also play together and get along in the game named Life.

 

I Am Google

I am Google

The title of this article must be outright flattering to its founders. Although one could replace Google with Firefox, Edge or any other search engine, you cannot pivot around the fact that people usually use Google to install these other search engines. That Google gracefully takes part in this process of knowingly potential business suicide says enough about its grandeur.

Google was founded 20 years ago when I was only 4 years old. The age at which a human being starts to form it’s early forms of consciousness. From the first moment I started using the internet, around the age of 8, Google was there. It has always been there, and mostly been benevolent, transparent, friendly and most importantly – extremely helpful.

Google, since I can remember, has been the most important tool to obtain information, that slowly matured into knowledge. Although this information was already out there in the world, Google was the mechanism that made sure this information hit my retina. Even at a very young age, I can remember I was sort of addicted to it. Although many people at the time went on to tell me that you “shouldn’t trust everything that you read on the internet”, and “Wikipedia was a distrustful source of knowledge” because everyone could edit it, I wasn’t so sure. Couldn’t I trust myself in discarding that what was absolute gibberish from that what was worthwhile? Of course, I couldn’t, I was 12, but at least I tried. And through learning how to use Google for basically everything,  I have come to see the transformation of the Internet, and that of Google.

The uncanny realisation is that, since I use Google for basically everything, Google also could in theory, or does basically, know everything about me.  Like the A.I. pictured in the 2013 movie Ex Machina, whose knowledge base and human understanding is based upon all the search inquiries made within the biggest search engine that exists within that world, I am basically Google.

Google is everywhere once you take into account the companies that they’ve bought throughout the last couple of years. Wikipedia tells us that since 2001, they have bought up to a whopping 189 companies, about 12.6 mergers a year. Companies that, once bought, help to strengthen Google’s position within the markets that they (want to) operate in. Online search, advertisement, online video’s, communication, social media and office environments are all fields they (want to) excel in. Not to mention all the moonshot companies Google owns, now operating under the name Alphabet.  Besides, the sheer realisation that the world is increasingly going mobile, and Google, together with Google Maps, is installed in millions of phones. When no encryption is involved, they could possibly know almost everything about your every move, presuming you extensively use your smartphone (something that most people seem to do).

Of course, almost all this data can be regarded as completely useless, since we lack the skills to usefully interpret or analyse it (yet). On top of that, there are way too many laws that protect people from such privacy infringement. But what if these laws change? What if the people’s opinion changes? What if our data mining and machine learning techniques advance dramatically? What if then, there is a extremely powerful company with lots of personal information, that gets (forced) into doing the wrong things?

One can only imagine, and Hollywood could probably write a successful dystopian sci-fi about it. For now, I’ll continue to love Google like I do. I do not care that Google in theory knows everything about me. Without Google, I wouldn’t be the knowledgeable person that I am today, and for that, I should thank them.

Second Layer Editing

Second layer editing

“What did you do last night?”, asked my unsuspecting colleague. Faithfully I return the favour by providing a brief glimpse into the moments that played out yesterday. A brief glimpse, since telling him every piece of information that I have actually experienced would result in an outright awkward social situation, and the risk of never being asked such a question again. So then, what does someone supply you with when confronted with such a dilemma?

“I went to do X with Y and Z and after that we went to A together and meet up with B”.

Within a split second, you have reduced an entire evening of experiences, into a single sentence. You exposed just enough information as to keep the door open for further inquiries, without harassing someone with unwanted details. On top of that, you have just created a story line, that does not necessarily resemble that what actually occurred, but nevertheless became an entity on its own and is now living on inside the mind of the other, functioning as the only available piece of information about what happened to you on that particular evening.

So, in a sense, we are all living our subjective lives as if they are screenplays.

screenplay

        /ˈskriːnpleɪ/

        noun

the script of a film, including acting instructions and scene directions.

Like real screenplays, our narratives are unstable, and very much open to reinterpretation. We ourselves of course, are the editors. We engage in this act every single time we tell a story, whether this story is directed to yourself, or others. In fact, we engage in this act every single time we experience something out there. Every piece of incoming sensory information needs to be conceptualised and categorised into meaningful representations that we can later recall as memories. Not surprisingly, people differ in their editing skills, which leaves some narratives blank and hollow, while others are filled to the brim with depth and life. The fact that people also differ in their conceptualisations, categories and representations, based on their unique life experiences makes it even even more complex.

Just as the answer I gave my colleague could have been constructed of entirely bogus information (I could have just as much stayed at home to binge-watch a new TV-series instead of going out with friends – my colleague doesn’t have to know), even though I told the truth with conscious deliberation, so can the edited stories of your personal experiences that you tell yourself consist of completely misinterpreted bogus information. Firstly, we are not perfect observers of our own environments , situations, feelings and states of consciousness we find ourselves in. As a human, we are always unconsciously biased as to which information gets stored, marked, enhanced or inhibited. As long as you, the grand-editor of your narrative, are able to provide seemingly coherent and logical after-edited stories, there is actually no way of telling whether you are factually lying to yourself, and therefore to others.

Our narratives also contain acting instructions and scene directions. These acting instructions tell us behaviours. When to speak out, hold back, engage, walk away or simply put – any acceptable way of presenting yourself for a given environment. The scene directions tell us which environments we are familiar with and are comfortable in to execute such instructions. So, imagine that one would have infinite accurate knowledge on someone’s actions and perceived environments and infinite amounts of paper to write on, you could in theory write out an entire life as a screenplay which could resemble the truth. Yet, we would still run into a major problem. How do we know if our interpretation of these observed life events are factually true? Even if the person in question promises to speak the truth and nothing else but the truth, how do we make sure that the person in question was not lying to himself throughout this entire duration? It seems, that we can conclude, that our screenplays, our narratives, are nothing more than just that. An at times (very) accurate approximation of what truly happened, booby-trapped with occasional (deliberate) lies.

It therefore seems, that one of the most important currencies in human interactions is trust. The colleague that trusts his other colleague to be presenting the truth of what played out that particular evening.

So what happens, when this process of conveying supposedly trustworthy information, plays out on a screen, instead of the boundaries of physical contact? What happens when people have another layer of editing, much more calculated than the quick and forced answer I was guilty of providing my colleague with?

Look around you. We’re already living in a world that is dominated by screens. Screens that show us information that has carefully been selected and edited as to present a certain viewpoint, just as the scene directions within a film’s screenplay. A world wherein screens come in all sizes and formats, but coincide on only one matter. The information that you view on these screens, has been edited, not once, as is usually the case in normal social interaction, but twice, thrice or more.

Most people are already aware of such a reality. Newspapers, radio and storytelling are based on the same principles and have been around for a long time. However, currently our own personal lives are starting to become more like newspapers, a mere selection of all that that could in theory be shown as news.

Opposed to our offline narratives, our online narratives are even more remote from that what is actually happening. We have created a world in which it is easily possible to only show a tiny glimpse of your heavily edited persona, or in some cases, throw it all out there. This world of screens makes it even more difficult to know if someone or something is factually close to the truth or not.

Although one could readily fail to accurately  assess a strangers personality or traits based on a inquisitive conversation, it is far more difficult to distil an accurate understanding of someone based on their online social media presence. On the same level, it is far more exhausting to know if someone is speaking the truth or is being genuine in a WhatsApp conversation (even at the age of 12, I would often send a message that I was going to take a  shower when I simply felt that the conversation was boring), than it would be in a face to face talk.

This second layer editing that we can (un)consciously employ to alter our screenplay and narrative enables us to do things we couldn’t before, and become things we couldn’t possibly dream of, often at the dispense of perceived honesty and brings with it increased personal complexity. Although many people might deny it as means to protect their personal righteous screenplay narrative, all people lie on a daily basis. Already, it takes quite some effort to remember and keep track of who knows what and who doesn’t. With an online, double edited alter ego, one might be able to control some of these information flows, along the way risking to lose oneself in the double edited narrative. Losing that what is really there when you solemnly close your eyes at night. 

We use screens, because it puts another safe layer between our inner world and the outside world. A layer in which we are free to select and promote that what we like and neglect or hide that what we don’t want (people) to find out. Through normal human interaction, most of us are already experts at this. However, the fact that we are scarily good at editing our own life narratives, does not mean we shouldn’t be seeking  truth within ourselves and others instead.