There’s an essay I like to share, by Robert Anton Wilson, that gave me the single best tool for understanding the world and the people in it. It’s called Creative Agnosticism, and in it Wilson defines the concept of ‘Reality Tunnels.’
His definition is long, and suffers a bit from the fact that he’s trying to tie it to a larger theory of consciousness. I won’t go into that here, but read his essay if you’re curious (I recommend it!). My goal here is to extract and explain the core of this powerful idea in a way that’s easy to understand. It looks like this:
- We are all of us constantly awash in an unfathomable amount of sensory input. Everything in your field of view, every background sound, the taste of the air, how your body feels, etc etc etc.
- To exist in the world is to filter all of that information down to just the set of observations that we can manage. No two people, given the same set of sensory input, will filter them down in exactly the same way.
- Our sense of the world, of the nature of reality itself, is constrained at all times by which sensory observations we allow through our filters. This means we are always operating from a filtered position.
- All of the facts that we believe, all of the values that we project onto the world, all of the actions that we take — these are based on that filtered position. We have removed most of our sensory experience and then constructed a ‘reality’ out of what remains. Wilson called this a ‘Reality Tunnel.’
Isn’t it weird, then, that we don’t as a society have a good vocabulary for talking about those filters?
Understanding that our realities are subjective and malleable gives us access to a tremendous power: we can control the filters we use! We can “change the channel”, as Wilson puts it, and tune into different realities at will. We don’t have to stay locked in one — in fact, people trying to do is at the root of most major conflict.
We can slide between reality tunnels by consciously choosing to pay attention to things we might normally ignore. It’s hard, at first, but is a skill that we can develop with practice. Train yourself to pay more attention to the emotions of the people you’re speaking too, for instance, and you’ll be surprised at how much richer the world gets. Train yourself to pay attention to your caloric intake and eating fundamentally changes. Train yourself to hear the voices of minorities and suddenly you see racism and sexism everywhere.
(This, incidentally, is why activism works — this is also why ‘magic’ works. Reality is malleable.)
Those other reality tunnels were always there — you just needed the key, you needed to unlearn your default filters and exert some effort into creating new ones.
This is liberating — but it has a dark side. Because if you’re not aware of the flexible nature of reality, if you’re not aware of your own capacity to take charge of what you pay attention to, then this tremendous human capacity for change can be subverted and exploited. Living in a state of multiple overlapping and mutually exclusive realities can be exhausting, and the default human mind isn’t comfortable with it — the mind wants a single, stable reality to map around. Ideology, advertising, religion — these are institutions that consolidate power by selling ‘off-the-shelf’ reality tunnels to minds hungry for structure and stability.
They take the complex task of sorting through infinite variability and do it for you, telling you what you should care about and what you can ignore. There are various mechanisms they can employ. They dismiss and trivialize the things that threaten them; they repeat, over and over, references to the details they want you to notice. (“Emails! Emails! Emails!”, “McDonalds! McDonalds! McDonalds!”, “Sin! Sin! Sin!”)
These off-the-shelf realities aren’t necessarily bad — they’re just powerful. And something that the worst ones have in common is the insidious claim that they are The One True Reality, not merely one of an infinite set of filters. They actively discourage the exploration of other tunnels, because the instant you realize that they’re not The Only Way their hold over you breaks.
Over time I’m going to be writing additional essays around this subject. Reality Tunnels are, to my mind, the single best tool for understanding the chaos of the ‘post-truth’ postmodern world. They are being weaponized and deployed at massive scale, and the sooner we as a society develop the ability to see them the sooner we can respond to them.