Episode Two: Hacking Reality

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Let me start with a story.

One day a young woman was walking through the mall, looking at the shops, watching the people on her way to one of the stores.

She saw a little boy, maybe five years old, sitting on the ledge of a fountain. She looked around, but didn't see anyone with him. The boy looked sad, or maybe worried.

We all know the kinds of very bad things that can happen in the world. She started wondering, did someone bring him to the mall to abandon him? Did something happen to his parents?

She tried to imagine the set of circumstances could lead to what she was seeing. Did he become separated? Was the fountain the place he was told to go if he got lost?

She kept walking toward him, wondering whether she should help in some way. Where could his lost parents be? Surely they would be hurrying back to him. Should she say something?

Then she noticed the boy's mother on the other side of the fountain call to him. The boy looked up, smiled, and then ran past her into the arms of his father that he had been watching for.

We have to do this sort of analysis every day. Our lives are complicated, full of meaning, subtext, intentions, mysteries, conventions, morales. It can be very difficult sometimes. There is a lot to learn and keep track of. All day long we are swimming in meaning, culture, the reality of our village and our people. How they act. How things sometime can go wrong, and what we can do to help.

In our world today, we spend a great deal of energy trying to decide what is right, what is better, how we should pray, or eat, or propel our cars.

Looking at the world, and trying to understand the circumstances and motivations that lead to what we see, is how we survive. It's how we understand our world and what happens to us.

It requires a mastery of imagination.

This is why I say we live in a dream. Maybe some animals live only in the present, only in the world. But as humans, we live both in the material world and in the social world. When to smile. When to hold the door. When to be firm. Every village has its own rules, all sorts of unspoken guidelines that have emerged. We need to know when it's OK to put macaroni in chili, or ketchup on a hotdog.

So much of what we think of as the world, truth, reality itself, is something that we imagine, and there's no simple fence to mark the differences between the physical and the cultural realities that we live in.

What is the mechanism behind those beliefs? Why do some seem right? Why do some seem wrong, and why can so many people, honestly looking for the truth, find such different answers?

When we talk about ideas, in politics, or in religion, the point is often to challenge or defend some belief.

But, what is often missed here, is that these ideas can never be universal. They can only be relevant within the selected values of our society.

Political and religious beliefs are clearly not universal, otherwise every culture would discover exactly the same universal truths, the same way that anyone measuring the gravitational force at sea level will find the same answer.

But as we have seen, we live in a mixture of truths from both the physical world and from the choices that we make to define our cultural realities. We do seem to find some consistent beliefs, because there are behaviors that consistently cause trouble, and some behaviors that are usually helpful for a society. And yet, the ways in which we choose to deal with them is far from universal.

These differences are the boundaries of choosing one cultural reality over another, and because both sides are defending what seems to be a universal, obvious truth, we keep having the same arguments.

Imagine the disadvantage you are at if someone else understands that what you think of as true, as fixed, as solid as the ground, is made up mostly of our own ideas.

They're called con artists. Like a stage magician, who knows how to direct your attention so that it seems something physically impossible just happened, there are mental magicians who can influence the mechanisms of our imagination and change the shape of our world.

If your think that your ideas about the world, your political party, or your religion - your reality - is fixed, solid as the ground under you feet, then if someone can manipulate your imagination, they can sculpt reality itself.

What was once a natural and innocent apparatus necessary to bind our communities together with common purpose and history, with shared goals and laws, is now routinely abused in the hands of sorcerers trying to recast reality.

We have several words for it: propaganda, spin, advertising, gaslighting, indoctrination, disinformation, brainwashing.

It's not new. This is not a foreign concept.

But I think it's too easy, sometimes, to imagine that there exists a stable, clear, and common world, and that people who get conned, or who are influenced by propaganda have somehow left the sane world, and have entered a quite different realm, forgetting that our own reality itself is fluid.

The difference between propaganda and civics is not the difference between right and wrong. It's more like the difference between manipulation and influence.

Influence is helping, teaching, trying to encourage someone to make the best choice. Manipulation is lying, cheating, trying to twist someone else's behavior because it helps you.

It's sometimes a subtle distinction, because the reason behind the words can only be known by the speaker. It's even difficult, sometimes, to understand our own motives when we speak.

And even with the most honorable of intent, someone's attempt at wise influence could turn out to be manipulation to someone else, but that's not what a stage magician or a con artist is doing. They know they're tricking you. They know they're lying. They practice, and they are very good at it. That's fun when it's part of an illusionist's show, but when that attitude takes over politics, religion, advertising, it can be dangerous, even deadly.

The problem with propaganda is that it becomes truth when enough people accept it. That's just the nature of how our human truth works.

Daylight savings time only works because we all belive in it. And laws stop working when we don't.

That's the game.

So what do we believe? Who do we believe?

We live in a very gray, very turbulent arena with an endless stream of voices telling us what to belive.

They tap into our primal, social needs. Our tribe is our safety. We need to be accepted. We don't want to be shunned. We don't want to be different, and people tell us that this is the truth. This is how we're all going to do this now. And so when we see someone doing something different, or believing something that we are told is wrong, it can be easy to think that they are bad people, or that they have bad motives. If we see them as being improper somehow, because obviously my truth is true and their truth is a lie, then we get to dismiss them and their point of views. We get to not only be right, we get to be the better person.

This is the mechanism at work every time the commercial block starts. Every time someone in authority speaks to us. Their intent is difficult or even impossible to know. They sound sincere. We want to assume that someone who sounds sincere is trustworthy. But there are mockingbirds among us who have learned to use the sound of sincerity very well.

Because we live in our own dreams, because imagination is the mechanism of our world, then all someone has to do is give us a good enough picture, one that seems to explain the circumstance for what we see, and we will do the rest. It's even easier if others around us are saying the same thing, believing, like us, that the others are wrong, and that their truth is an attack upon our own.

The mistake that our truth is universal is what leads us to think that all we need to do is make careful considerations about our beliefs and our actions so that we are the ones standing closer to that universal truth.

When we understand that this goal, the truth that we are considering, is not absolute or intrinsic, but is an expression of the values of our people, then the question has to become - not am I closer to the truth - but am I moving toward alignment with the values that we have all chosen. Am I a good ambassador for the beliefs that we have selected?

It can be very difficult to ask the more important questions: Why are these the values of my people, and are they wrong? Can we do better? Are there deeper, more important values to consider?

Who is it that makes these choices, sets the values, builds the beliefs?

Traditionally, this has been the role of the leaders of our societies, the priests and the noblemen, the keepers of the law.

If we are to live as a society, above the simple carnal constraints of being animals in an environment, then deciding, sharing, following, and teaching the laws is an absolute necessity.

These laws will become a statement about our values, and you can discover the values of a people by the laws that they choose and the actions that they take. What is the role of women? How do people of different races and cultures interact? Do we live in a melting pot or in a vat of boiling oil and water?

How this is done, and why this is done, is the story of our history and of our lives today. Our laws, whether carried from our forefathers or our founding fathers, or are fresh from a bill signed this afternoon, create the tapestry of the truths that we hold to be self-evident.

It's powerful.

Because reality is a fluid condensation of our imaginations, choosing what we believe changes our world, more deeply and more profoundly than even turning lead into gold.

You either understand this mechanism, or you are controlled by it.

Getting us to believe, so that we will become an embodiment of values, is a game that is played every minute of every day.

When this exercise is conducted with the intent of maintaining order, health, peace, and the pursuit of happiness for the people of the land, we call these truth, religion, patriotism. When this is done to control wealth, and hold power over others for selfish motives, we call these lies, cults, and propaganda.

Our concept of law depends on trust between the law-makers and the lawful.

There is a level of assumed trustworthiness of someone who holds power. For kings, this was called the divine right. God himself chose that king, otherwise, obviously, there would be someone else. We hold elections, and when someone is selected by the people, following the rules that we have established, that person has an implied sanction as the captain, steering the rudder of truth.

We assume that the hand that holds the rudder won't steer us into the rocks, or drive us over a waterfall. There is a sacred covenant between leaders and followers. They control the destiny of our nation, the lives of our soldiers, and sometimes whether we eat or starve.

Our religions are even more sacred. God himself, the maker of the world has chosen this as the law. Here the covenant extends beyond the worldly plain, and is written into the very fabric of space-time itself.

God has spoken! So say we all! So let it be written. So let it be done.

And yet, sometimes, our leaders let us down. Sometimes they reveal that they know, all too well, that this is a game that they are playing to win our obedience, money, and faith. For every honest leader, lawmaker or priest, who acts with the deepest of heart who truly wants the best for all people, there are countless others who would wear that holy robe, and tell us sacred sounding stories, so that they get to grab the rudder of our world and to steer it for themselves.

Even the most well-intentioned among us, for the sake of what we know to be right and good, might grab that holy rudder, and force it to the side, because my truth is truth, and your truth is a lie.

And these days we're lucky if we only get a well-intentioned voice screaming at us. With this much power at stake, with the shape of the world now up for grabs, it seems everybody wants to get into the reality building business.

Even in a courtroom, where we want nothing but the truth, the caretakers of our law have become experts in focusing our attention on this truth or that truth, cherry-picking reality, molding truth and law to fit their narrative.

The world is now run by truth hackers and all kinds false prophets for profit and power.

And so we all ride on choppy waters, trying to stay afloat between political melodramas, religious fanaticism, email phishing scams, and sad Nigerian princes.

Right Wing. Lame Stream. Fake news.

We all have to deal with those overly complicated cell phone and credit card agreements.

Left verses right. Right versus wrong.

Buy now! Supplies are running out.

What to eat. When to fast. Forks or knives.

Nature or nurture, or how to get rich with no money down.

Vote for me. Pray with me.

But not those guys. These guys are bad. Those poor lost souls are barely even people. My truth is truth. Their truth are lies, and they want to hurt your children.

So Eyes here. Look this this way. It's all right. It's going to be OK. I've got you.

I got you.

But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.

This is our world, because reality is fluid. Because if you can control what people believe is reality, there's a pretty good chance that a lot of them won't know the difference.

How do we make sense of this?

We need to understand the rules of this new game. We need a new vocabulary to understand the beliefs about our beliefs and the mechanisms of meta-reality.

We need to understand how this game is being played, what our parts can be in our most important institutions, and how we can cope with it all.

We can only live in a dream about the world, and those who want to control us are turning our dreams into nightmares of manipulation.

They are stealing our dreams and selling them back to us for whatever price they want to charge.

But our dreams belong to us. We can dream big or we can dream small. We can dream hate or we can dream love.

So much of our world, whether we are a good people, or selfish, kind, or afraid, depends utterly on what we think it should be.

We can puke out all of our fears, leaving the world stained with the sick of our sour minds, or we can let each word be a seed that grows into a mighty oak, sheltering us all.

The magic of this world is that we can speak the world into being, because we can only live in the world that we imagine.

If we allow ourselves to be a blank slate, we won't make it five steps without being covered in someone else's graffiti, because they know how to talk to us. They know our fears. They know our most desperate needs, and if we let them, they will paint a world so frightening over there and so comforting over here, that we will turn our minds inside out and strap that leash tightly around our own necks.

We don't have to do that. None of us is truly that blank of a canvas. We are all dreamers. We are all great magicians.

We just forget that sometimes, because of all the noise.

We can choose not to let our voices become an empty echo of what we think we are supposed to say.

We all have, not only the the ability, but the right and the responsibility, to think quietly and well before we speak reality into being.