The Shared Reality Paradigm

Mysterious Collapse

Yesterday I read an article arguing that around 8,000 years ago the number of reproducing men (not women) experienced a precipitous collapse.

The authors argue that it had something to do with a consolidation of power caused by the agricultural revolution. I am not sure about the impact this had on society, but it was probably pretty destabilizing. Reproducing is one of the most fundamental parts of our being. If most men are denied the right to reproduce, the result is likely unsustainable. Note that after a few thousand years, a more equal balance of reproducing men and women was eventually reestablished.

I think we are undergoing something analogous to this now: we are seeing a collapse in the percentage of people meaningfully participating in the creation of our shared reality.

Shared Reality

One of the things that makes us human is the ability to develop a shared reality, largely through verbal communication. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of “shared reality”, here is a random article by some German guy that explains it pretty well. He uses the definition “shared reality is the product of the motivated process of experiencing a commonality of inner (mental) states (e.g., attitudes or judgments) with others about the world.”

I can’t remember when I first came across the idea, but it really struck me when reading (actually listening) to the book Coddling of the American Mind. That book references the book Neuromancer by William Gibson, who uses the term “consensual hallucination” to describe a new term, cyberspace, as:

A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts […] A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. (Gibson 30)

But my understanding of consensual hallucination is a little more primitive. Basically, the development of language allowed people to achieve a “commonality of mental states”, which allowed a greater degree of cooperation. I also associated the consensual hallucination with “culture” in the sense of The Secret of Our Success.

Basically, the human brain is designed to observe and adopt a shared reality (culture) that allows us to adapt more quickly to our environment (as compared to genetic evolution) and this is the secret to human success. We are also designed to talk to try and modify this shared reality through language.

Shared Reality and Social Calamity

The first book that got me thinking about the relationship between our shared mental states and the fate of society was The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This is a pretty fascinating book that is probably (at least partially) wrong. But it made this interesting claim that greater exposure to different people with different ideas caused a breakdown in the way that humans created a shared reality, which ultimately led to (or contributed to the Late Bronze Age Collapse, in which virtually every society on earth was destroyed.

In the aftermath of this collapse, a new consciousness emerged in which humans developed models to view themselves as independent agents (as opposed to simply creatures of fate).

You may or may not agree with the thesis about the origins of consciousness, but it is pretty obvious that changes to the way we create a shared reality have a pretty significant influence on history. Just look at what happened to the world after the development of the printing press (i.e., the Protestant Reformation) and mass media like radio and TV (i.e., WWII).

It is pretty common now for people to complain that the internet is interfering with our ability to create a shared reality. The story goes something like Facebook feeds people news that conforms to their pre-existing views, which creates information siloes. This results in a divided polity that can’t agree on basic facts, which will threaten our democracy.

I agree that the development of the internet, and the consequences for reality creation that it entails, will threaten global stability. However, I don’t agree with the pundits that the most natural and stable equilibrium is for everyone to get the same shared reality from a curated set of trusted media and scientific experts. In fact, I think that sharing a common national (or global) reality can be problematic for individual humans.

Shared Reality and Mental Health

Another book that influence my thinking about the impact of our modern version of shared reality is called Mind, Modernity and Madness. In that book, the author argues that with the development of the printing press it became possible for people to share a much greater degree of their reality beyond the confines of their local communities. England was the first country to experience this change, and it led to a new thing, called a “national identity”. The result: widespread mental illness.

Why would this be so? The author’s story goes something like this: when people view themselves as supposedly equal members of a large nation, they develop unrealistic ambitions. That is, they compare themselves to a large number of people and this creates an internal tension between what is possible and what people expect, which manifests itself as mental illness.

The argument reminds me of the claims that people make about how advertising (especially ads targeted toward women) creates unrealistic expectations about body image. Basically, sharing a reality with a large number of people can give us an unrealistic “life image” that we can’t live up to.

So there is this story that a modern shared reality makes us want something that isn’t normal. But I think there is actually something more insidious going on. Our modern information revolution is taking something from us that is normal and essential to our reality, just like the agricultural revolution stripped most men of the opportunity to reproduce.

We are losing the ability to contribute to our own shared reality. We are becoming reality consumers.

The Pareto Distribution of Shared Reality Creation

Contributing the development of a shared reality with your community is just as essential to being human as reproducing (some might say even say more so). And yet, with a globally connected world of information, the ability to contribute to your own shared reality is becoming subject to a pareto distribution. To understand the pareto distribution, see this explanation from Jordan Peterson:

That is, only a tiny number of people become “influencers” and the rest of us become primarily consumers of shared reality, not producers. For example, here’s a graph representing the number of views that different videos get on YouTube:

Now, you may have heard of the pareto distribution, and you are probably familiar with the general idea that its hard to become an influencer. But what I want you to understand is that being an influencer (someone who contributes meaningfully to the generation of the shared reality of the community) is essential to our mental health.

Intentional Reality Sharing Communities

There is a reason only a few YouTube videos get all the views. Those videos are the “best” videos. At least, they are the best in terms of some “ability to get people to watch me” metric. Plus, we like to all watch the same videos. Watching the same videos helps us develop a common language to talk to each other. Sharing reality with other people is comforting (and essential), and watching the same YouTube videos, and the same Netflix series makes us feel like we are part of the same culture. Sharing a national media is like sharing a giant meal with a great national family.

The problem is that shared reality consumption is only part of the equation. We must also participate in shared reality production. And to some extent, the modern world has presented new and interesting ways to do this. Do you like the wizarding world of Harry Potter? Why not write your own Harry Potter book and share with others who like the same thing? Well, you can certainly do that. In fact, one of the most prominent members of the rationalist community even wrote some Harry Potter fanfic.

The problem is that even fanfic follows a pareto distribution. You can’t escape it that way. You can’t just start creating stuff and hope that you will find an audience. Well, of course you can. But every competition for attention is hyper-competitive and most people fail. And this is dangerous for society.

What we need is a new paradigm. Just like the Late Bronze Age Collapse (may have) led to the development of a new mental model of how people work, shared reality manipulation is emerging as the new paradigm of the modern age. So we need to view ourselves in light of this paradigm and engineer our social circles accordingly. That is, we need to form intentional reality-creation community where we both create and consume locally sourced, organic reality.

A Market for Lemons

There are a few reasons forming an intentional reality-creation community is hard. As mentioned above, it is likely that the videos produced locally are going to be, in some sense, less good than the top-rated videos on YouTube. In general, the ideas produced locally are not always going to be top-notch.

Committing to carving out a shared reality with a local community is inefficient. And it is also subject to something of a market for lemons. That is, people who know that they can’t produce good ideas will try to sell their ideas locally because those who can compete more globally will do so. As a result, we should be somewhat skeptical if someone claims that they don’t want to produce ideas (or anything else of value) for a more global audience.

The fact is, compared to the experts, the celebrities, the globally recognized philosophers and heroes…the people around us are bound to be mediocre. Part of being in an reality-creation community means committing to letting your mediocre neighbors influence your reality. That means reading more Harry Potter fanfic and less Harry Potter (and not even the very best Harry Potter fanfic).

Shared Reality Drama

Another reason creating a reality-creation community is difficult is that the people around us have some crazy ideas. Trying to understand their point of view, and then trying to convince them that we are right, is time consuming and pointless.

If you like BLM, and one of your good friends believes in Q-Anon, it is much easier to live and let live than to try and hash out a common shared reality. Trying to create a reality-creation community means serious conflict and drama. You have to commit to hashing things out instead of agreeing to disagree. And in a world that caters to a million different Facebook groups, your neighbors are bound to be weird in one way or another. Or at the very least, stubbornly different.

Probably my primary experience with reality creation has been trying to develop a shared understanding of the world with my wife. We are very different people, and the process has not been easy. There has been plenty of pain and conflict. But I feel like it has been successful, and I take pride in the level of shared understanding we have been able to create.

One alternative to embracing conflict is to simply participate in a dozen different reality-creation communities. Join the maze-like reality of your corporate job from nine to five. Talk Harry Potter with your Harry Potter friends in the evenings. Share some thoughts about God with a carefully selected congregation of like-minded believers on Sundays…

I view this model of distributed reality as the primary alternative (or complement) to developing a single reality-creation community. To an extent, experiencing a distributed reality is inevitable unless we want to isolate ourselves from the world. The days where we can exist in a single, complex community that combines all facets of our social identity are long gone.

Reality Source Distribution

So the question is not really an either-or. The question is how much of our reality should be drawn from (i.e., how much attention we pay to) different types of communities. Some of our reality is going to be drawn from various global information sources where you are (probably not) participating as a creator. Some of our reality is drawn from relatively shallow niche communities. And some will be drawn from people with whom we share deep reality-creation commitments.

My belief is that the “natural” state of man (the state favored by millions of years of genetic evolution) is to share most or all of our reality with a single modest-sized community. The course of history has forced us to expand our consciousness to include many more people, but there are limits to this process.

It may be tempting to naively extrapolate the expansion of our consciousness to conclude that we should view humanity as one giant family. But as discussed above, due to the pareto distribution of influence, this expansion will ultimately strip us of our humanity.

Conclusion

We live in interesting times. A new paradigm of human consciousness is emerging that is based on the intentional participation in a shared reality. One of the greatest challenges in doing so is making room for each person to have meaningful opportunities to create, not just to consume, this reality. This means anchoring ourselves in small groups that resemble those of our ancestors.

Specifically, we should spend a majority of our attention developing a shared reality with a sub-Dunbar community of between 15–150 people. Most of us are far from achieving this standard. Some have been able to achieve meaningful unity within our nuclear family. Some identify more with global movements and politics. But neither of these provides the natural range of reality creation opportunities that was the natural state of our ancestors.

Small-scale reality creation likely means engaging in substantial conflict with those closest to us because we have been conditioned to be individualistic. There will be an ever-present temptation to retreat into our shallow niches, or to consume only high-quality, imported reality. Therefore, participating in such communities will require a degree of intentionality and commitment that our ancestors never needed. Embrace the challenge.

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Redbeard

Redbeard

Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters