Report by René van Peer on workshop ‘It’s all in the meme’
Posted: 6 September 2021
Report by René van Peer on workshop ‘It’s all in the meme’
‘It’s all in the meme,’ was the title of a one-day workshop organised by Baltan Laboratories on July 1, 2021. With ZKM-affiliated artist Freddy Paul Grunert as moderator, participants had prepared to discuss the way unconscious attitudes influence people’s perception and decisions. As Grunert stated in a written introduction: ‘The workshop consists of developing new perspectives which deal with our (collective) unconscious bias and prejudice. How not to be hindered by policies and technologies that obfuscate our thoughts, ideas, our visions? The very act of realising that we all have hidden biases can enable us to mentally monitor hidden attitudes before they are expressed in our decision, in which even minor changes in behaviour can make a world of difference.’
A small group of international participants joined the workshop. Grunert prefaced the proceedings with a lengthy verbal statement about bias, the way it influences decisions people make and its relation to how people identify themselves. On the one hand, he referenced people’s online presence. This gives rise to a digital identity, a meme that can take on many different shapes. On the other hand, he referenced the case of Galileo Galilei, who, under pressure from the church, recanted his conviction that we live in a heliocentric universe - a conviction that was based on observation. He called this compromise (the fact that Galileo willingly dismissed facts based on his own empirical observation) a slippery slope, or an inclined plane, phrases he returned to during the rest of the workshop. Next, he introduced the idea of how happiness can be measured, questioning what people need to measure their own happiness, and whether measurement systems are important for feeling secure. Grunert referred again to Galileo and the compromise he made to the Inquisition in order to save his life. He concluded: ‘Bias is a one-sided view of the truth. It enables you to make conclusions faster, but it also guides your inclinations.’
Economia is the festival of
In the ensuing discussions, participants elaborated on three topics that Grunert put forward: how to arrive at objective knowledge, how to avoid or acknowledge bias, and the possibility to measure happiness. Reon Brand, researcher at Philips Design, had his doubts about making things measurable. ‘Not everything that counts can be counted. It derives from a deep-seated idea that we need to have control. The deepening of relationships works against entropy. Rationality, and the drive to measure everything, is the problem. Science starts from assumptions that are not proven, and believes that everything works in fundamental ways, that everything is material and consists of particles, that the universe is a clockwork, that nature is a machine. However, the Newtonian laws fall apart on a micro and macro scale. Laws that are viewed as fixed, can evolve. They cannot be proven or disproven. Single truths make our life predictable. We should be looking for multiple truths, through different lenses. We view the unpredictable as threatening. Mathematics and the digital environment are only a representation of the world, of reality.’ All participants agreed that happiness cannot easily be measured, if at all. Moreover, they doubted whether such a measurement is actually necessary. Happiness, most agreed, is a relational phenomenon: related to personal motivation, to being part of a larger whole, such as a family. Some found this exercise uncomfortable, had strong doubts whether measuring is the only way to gain knowledge. The issue of how to deal with bias turned out to be rather hazy. People felt the need to be aware of it, but did not offer any ideas how to go about that.
Grunert intervened, saying that there was no point in going into micro and macro scales. He put forward the ‘construction theory’: ‘Dealing only with what we can handle, the in-between area. That is the starting point for finding fundamental structures. How can you measure consciousness? Processing neurons are always active, also in sleep. To measure electrons you need absolute zero, which exists only in outer space.’
Brand: ‘The problem with quantifying consciousness is that it is based in material science, but it is also a fundamental property of all phenomena on every scale. We are always hamstrung by assumptions that we make. The view is always distorted.’
Grunert asserted that there is a need for philosophy, as it is always important to ask questions. He introduced a dichotomy between the associational (‘I am too rational for that’), and dissociation. ‘One should be able to dissociate, without being discriminated against,’ he argued. ‘We can recognise that it is not a crime to talk about the earth being flat. There are different ways of looking at something. The question then is, can you say there is a concept we can compromise on? What can we share?’ The discussion moved to cognition, taking into account a relationship of humans to the planet and everything that is on it. On the one hand, we are limited by what our senses convey to us, so we may be missing out on a lot of information. On the other hand, we have to work with what we can perceive. Some participants wanted to link that to a spiritual dimension, others cited empathy as a way to connect with what is around us. Reon Brand referred to the San of South Africa and Namibia, who can read the behaviour and minds of animals, a connection that has been lost in the West, and cannot easily be regained. We have become dissociated from our senses, argued Melinda Rackham, when we moved to cities and started to use digital instead of direct sensory connection. Brand: ‘The digital environment is a representation of a representation of the world. It distorts our view.’
After a short break Grunert invited the participants to view a forty-minute conversation, recorded in 1979, between the Canadian
zoologist and broadcaster David Suzuki and the theoretical physicist David Bohm, who developed a causal, nonlocal interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Suzuki wonders, whether the universe can be broken down into ever smaller particles to see how it works and can be built from those particles. Bohm quickly discards that idea: particles behave both like matter and like waves, and physicists have not yet found the smallest building blocks of the universe; and that is just the beginning of a long list of contradictions in quantum physics that cannot be resolved, or, for that matter, understood, according to Bohm. ‘The particle is an abstraction, according to Einstein.’ Space is a large field, that is fundamentally interconnected. Suzuki argues that he is an autonomous individual, running around on his own and on his own motivation. Bohm counters that with saying that Suzuki would not last very long, if he was not connected with air or water; and with other people for essential services and companionship. ‘Things that seem to exist independently, are manifestations of something much deeper.’ He poses the theory of the ‘enfolded’ or ‘implicate order,’ describing a device of two concentric cylinders, one within the other with glycerine between them. Drops of ink introduced in the glycerine, would gradually disappear when one cylinder is turning; turning it then in the opposite direction makes them appear again in the same order.
Next, Bohm makes the case for something that needs to be added to science, because he has found that science itself is not as beneficial to the world and mankind as he once thought. In a book by the philosopher Krishnamurti, Bohm
found that the observer and the observed are basically the same, a concept that is important in quantum mechanics. Krishnamurti showed that rational thought would not solve the problems that humankind faces. Problems arise because of the irrational ways we apply our rational discoveries, he says. Thought is not free, it is conditioned. Everything that happens is recorded in the brain. He compares the way we behave with a computer program, that makes us think, act and feel in a certain way. That program is installed early, and does not just contain useful things, such as language and techniques, but also prejudice and hopes and fears. That program gives rise to many irrationalities. We are moved by desires. We should distinguish between desire and true passion, which is a tremendous energy that is creative. Desire makes you want everything to be good, and harmonious and happy. It is a state of consciousness. The quickest way to fulfill your desires is wishful thinking, that is, to arrange your thoughts according to your desires. This self-deception is the main component of human thought. The most dominant thought is self-deception, however rational you may be. Then he discusses how to deal with that self-deception. For that, people have to turn to the program, which is stored in the brain. But we have no senses to see it. It is not materially lodged there. We cannot resort to memory, as that is also part of the program. We can see it working in a mirror, in our relationships with others, and in watching the emotions in how they affect the body. A thought generates an emotion, which generates a physical reaction. You have to touch the actual, material process of the program. Awareness can touch that. If you can see this thing at work, then you can see it for what it is worth, whether it is beneficial or not. Then it can be erased. The question is, how this works on a larger, global, level. It works the same way, according to Bohm. Whatever people have tried to change things (religion, politics), nothing much has changed over the years. He ends by saying that if sufficient people become aware of how this program works, they may be a force for change.
After this, participants elaborated on various issues raised by David Bohm. First of all, that everything is connected to everything. Things and people do not exist in isolation. Also, that in physics concepts go beyond the strictly material. There is a strong spiritual dimension in quantum physics. There are phenomena that cannot be explained through assumptions. Desire frames people into very narrow biases. ‘What is interesting is not what you learn,’ according to Reon Brand, ‘but how you use what you learned in the way you interact with the world. That is wisdom.’ He compared science to religion in the way it operates and made a case for trying to see things from different perspectives, because our way of seeking knowledge is seriously flawed. This multifaceted approach would make it possible to avoid bias. Science and industry destroy the world, and people try to repair that with the same means, instead of taking a wider view. Then wisdom may become a force for change in a world with seven billion people. This argument was accepted and endorsed by all participants, who argued for combining knowledge with ethics, which would amount to wisdom, and for devising ways to subvert structures of power, as suggested by Bohm. Some argued that change should start with the individual, but that this would not guarantee change on a larger scale. Grunert agreed with this. Individual people, even if they form a community, have limited power of influencing society as a whole, which is driven by greed. He didn’t envision science becoming less greedy.
Taking the clue from Reon Brand’s position that science operates like a religion, Dan Diojdescu argued that science has become outdated, and that we should turn to social networks and narratives instead. He argued to replace the language of science, most of which was created in the last 300 years, with a language of imagination, which would already have been used by Homo erectus, and is something that can be traced back to myths and legends. That was also used to make sense of the world. Others in the workshop agreed, stating that Greek philosophers found that eyes and ears alone cannot be trusted, and that language of imagination exists in art, literature and music - ways for people to express themselves non-scientifically.
Diojdescu also posited that science has changed from a tool to a dictator, a thought that found wide support. The example of biologist Rupert Sheldrake was cited, who dared to question basic assumptions from his scientific field, and was aggressively attacked because of that, just like Bohm had been. Another view was that all science is anthropocentric: it deals with the world in relation to humans, whereas in nature there are ecosystems working independently from us, from which we can learn. Not everyone agreed to that, because as humans we cannot transcend the boundaries of our own knowledge. That notion was opposed by others: empathy makes it possible to understand and make connection with other entities, and in doing so can change how one looks at things. Here, the concept of dissociation entered the discussion, in various ways. One, in a statement that humans are the only species that had dissociated itself from the world. Two, in an experiment of dissociation it might be worthwhile to get out of yourself to look at yourself: you have to get out to get to that level of understanding. For that to work, a people should overcome their ego. The notion of empathy with non-human entities did cause some irritation, one participant grouping it with witchcraft and superstition.
In a final statement Reon Brand wondered what happened with the role of internet in bias. That issue had not been touched on. A reflection on the workshop arrived afterwards via email: ‘I was a little perplexed early in the session as several others were participating very tangentially, i.e., giving lots of their opinions regarding the questions rather than answering the questions, meaning I was not sure if there was a purpose, or a plan for the event, other than disrupting thinking or biases, or trying to elect certain responses from the participants. Sometimes I wasn’t quite sure if there was a question to be addressed either, but that’s the fascinating thing about our uncertain times. I would have liked some time to talk more about the implicate order, especially in terms of deconstructing biases and sets of thought. I was waiting for a big reveal - some sort of ‘well these conversations are a perfect example of your personal biases which were totally predictable from some algorithm!’ But I have no idea if that happened because of the time difference and me having to leave at midnight in my time zone before the workshop was complete.’
This email points out some of the flaws in this workshop. Grunert did not seem to have a real plan, other than his initial statement and the forty minutes interview. He did not articulate clear objectives. IIntroducing the concept of quantifying happiness proved to be a red herring, leading the participants of the workshop away from the topicing the. of the meme as a source of bias, which should have been the central topic of this workshop As it is, the participants never really got to discuss it. At one point, according to the schedule, participants should have been given time to formulate their thoughts on a specific topic. Grunert filled that time with a lengthy monologue. In the end, he did not make clear if and to what extent objectives had been met. There was no conclusion. On the other hand, the variety of the views and discussions, and the forty minutes interview with David Bohm, made the workshop worthwhile. Whether or not expectations were met, may also be a matter of perspective. Simply chasing desires may lead to self-deception, we just learned. Becoming aware of the fact that the observer and the observed are one and the same, may guide us to look beyond and pursuit our deepest aspirations.
This Workshop was part of NewHoRRIzon, Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).
Baltan Laboratories would like to thank GenØk - Centre for Biosafety, Freddy Paul Grunert and all participants for their support, creativity and input.
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