There is No Box

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“Do not try to bend the spoon.  That’s impossible.  Instead, only try to realize the truth.”

“What truth?”

“There is no spoon.”

This column is going to explore a world unhampered by the weight of organizational cruft and inertia, unconstrained by constructed categories and false dilemmas; an abundant world of empowered individuals, where new technologies are answering old questions, and everyone has a voice.  We’re going to deconstruct and demystify the forces that seek to stymie this world, from politics to cognitive biases.  Join me on this journey, as we examine decentralization and philosophical anarchism.

Take a look around you, notice how clear the boundaries between different objects appear.  Listen, and hear how cleanly speech sounds are separated into their alphabetic boxes.  It’s all very nice and tidy.  It’s also an illusion, a sort-of cookie-cutter theme park that our brain creates for our conscious awareness.  Linguists have well-documented this phenomena, called categorical perception, and I am convinced that it shapes how we experience reality.

We don’t actually perceive the raw audio signals that our ears receive.  I believe that this is due to cognitive load.  There are simply too many fine details for us to pay attention to simultaneously, so most of the information is filtered out, and we don’t even notice it.  When it comes to speech sounds, we don’t perceive the full spectrum of frequencies in a sound that linguists examine with spectrograms.  Instead, the sounds become processed into blocks of sound (phonemes) that roughly map to the sounds of the alphabet.

An ‘a’ sound can vary quite a lot based on things like who the speaker is and what sound follows it.  Within a language, each phoneme can be imagined as an area or box drawn on the full range of possible sounds.  When we hear a speech sound within one of those categories, we don’t pay attention to where in the category it is – all that really matters is which category it falls in.  We hear an ‘a’ sound.  This is categorical perception in a nutshell.

Now extend that idea to vision.  When you casually glance at the face of a life-long friend, do you actually notice all of the visual detail?  Are you consciously seeing every fleck of color in their eyes, noticing the number of visible hairs?  Of course not – at least not ordinarily.  If we imagine a mental category mapping to familiar visual objects, just like with phonemes, it becomes clear that we see the ‘friend’ image.

Now, categorical perception is an incredible tool.  It allows us to think and react swiftly, paying attention to what we must, and ignoring what we can.  But now, extend the idea to the level of society, to US political discourse in particular.  The idea that there are only two options (left/right, conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican) is another example of categorical perception.  And it becomes an insidious one when we consider the feedback effects.  When we ‘hear’ political opinion and it basically maps to one of two options, we lose nuance.  When we express political opinion, informed by this categorical perception, it becomes normalized to the categories.  In this arena, categorical perception becomes limiting – it reduces the range of what is even imaginable.

But we aren’t slaves to categorical perception – it’s just a heuristic that our brains use to think fast, but we can chose to think slow.  This fall, as the propaganda rains down on all sides, let yourself out of the categorical box.  Don’t think outside of the box.  Instead try to realize the truth.

There is no box.

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