Email was meant to be a tool, but unfortunately it has almost become a replacement for reality. Many tools have, even photography. We instinctually resist this pressure because we know it feels unhealthy. While these tools are not intrinsically bad, the slow creeping of imbalance in our lives literally feels life-threatening.

I think this same type of self-preservation needs to be happening at a higher level as well.

As we enter the era of big data and the pandemic schizophrenia of always being online, we need to fight for balance by developing our private world and finding a self-possession. Our ability to derive meaning from data — and from life — depends on our ability to withstand the pressure of group-think.

Are we living a life that enables us to ask great questions?

Our imagination conforms to our present reality and can also be destroyed by it. This is why the preferences of society change so dramatically over time. For example, by the time our troops came back from WWI, we had lost all interest in once popular examples of fanciful cinema. Today, we no longer read about charioteers and angels because our reality has changed. When one reality is destroyed, our imagination must attach itself to a new reality.

This dance is particularly clear when looking at our historical relationship with words and the type of meaning we value. In 17th Century England, the connotative use of words was held in high esteem. This type of language was condemned by Locke and Hobbes in the 18th century because they preferred mathematical plainness without the distraction of associative meanings. While the 18th century did maintain small buds of poetic diction (among poets), these buds blossomed later as the 19th century progressed which emphasized connotation once again.

These oscillations are due to changing realities and responses.

Today, we are clearly living in a time that prefers denotative plainess, or more distinctly, information. The era of big-data is exerting its pressure and I wonder about our response. How will we engage these pools of possibility? Is our imagination muscular enough to look beyond the easy pathways and make transformative discoveries that help us grow into our potential?

The stakes are higher than we realize.

The answers we derive from this process will become ingrained in our narratives — much like the fiction of writers — which will help us conceive a new reality. This is an ongoing feedback loop of interanimation between reality and imagination. And for the first time in history we are confronted with the task of having numerical fuel for our idioms and imagination.

The growth of algorithms is so ubiquitous that we barely notice. While good ones can eliminate unhealthy bias and optimize details, they cannot create a new direction nor establish new conditions.

As aspiring innovators, we should aim to create conditions where unique insight and invention can best happen. When the pendulum of history swings one way, we need to lean the other way.

Today, that means balancing the onslaught of information by producing and enjoying actual experiences (for their own sake) rather than just consuming information. This happens all the time through art, music, literature, conversation and other social practices.

Reality and imagination enhance each other for their mutual deepening. They need each other to help us achieve our ultimate goal: “to make our own ideas a light in the minds of others.”

“ … I am the necessary angel of earth, since, in my sight, you see the earth again.”

— Wallace Stevens, “The Auroras of Autumn”

Large portions of this post are translating — or paraphrasing — the collected essays of Wallace Stevens about reality and the imagination titled “The Necessary Angel.” Even though these writings are older and obscure, they struck me as surprisingly relevant as we enter this new age.

The drawing at the top is by John Cage.