On Tribal Narratives and Environmental Catastrophe

Context: Climate Disaster Is Upon Us

A core human psychological trait of small-scale tribal herding may work against the kind of global organisational unity and cooperation required to cultivate substantive industrial and economic change in the limited time available.

On one end of the behavioural and cognitive spectrum: the scale of the context and the consequences may be an order of magnitude beyond the narrative aptitude and comprehension of both the individual and the collective (i.e. cultural, social) minds with which emergent biological and deep historical processes have equipped us. Denying the existence of an unintelligible reality makes a gloomy kind of sense from that perspective; people cling to narratives they can understand and to which their reflexive neurophysiology or personal experience entrains and predisposes them.

Another, equally troubling but related, issue is that of a probable disassembly of existing large-scale narratives (such as they are) of international cooperation and global responsibility when faced with unrelenting environmental entropy. It is something of an endemic and pathological characteristic of our species to seek solace in simplistic abstractions and defensive tribal tropes when confronted with insecurity and uncertainty.

It is not all necessarily doomsaying, though. A key takeaway may be that creatively articulating an effective and persuasive global narrative on this topic has become more important than ever before.

Improbable Insights

A question which strikes me is: if all of material reality (physics), biology and (for that matter, also) psycholinguistics is at base the recursive representation and autonomous self-perpetuation of the patterned, emergently complex information structure and logic of dynamical systems – why is it that there exist such monumental hurdles and difficulties in articulating this complexity, in encoding and communicating it ? A Cosmos in which the logic of emergence and creatively useful algorithmic information compression is ubiquitous and in some sense all-encompassing would surely also be one in which this logic of self-replication is best-served and maintains sustainable continuity through ease of information formulation (encoding) and transmission (communication).

But there are problems and seemingly intractable difficulties which arise when articulating and efficiently transmitting the structured or encoded information and message, again – these are the kinds of problems that material reality “solves” all over the place but when percolating through human beings, bottlenecks and chokepoints are endemic. Each one of us of necessity develops private languages and cognitive or linguistic compression methods with unique vocabularies and contexts which, other than isolating ourselves in ways similar to the siloed mutual-estrangements of academic specialisation, create difficulties of interpersonal or intertribal communication. Small surprise that popular communications and consensus reality is of generally lowest-common-denominator complexity – it may be that the generally and self-evidently trivial froth and bubble of cultural communications artefacts is the one true survivor and heir of human language, thought and technlogy – i.e. that which is most successfully (self-)replicated.

It may be, deep down in the conceptual coal mine (as we currently are), that the benefit that human beings derive through the successful structural replication (via information encoding and transmission) as logical, linguistic or symbolic information systems is primarily in some sense through the participation in those systems. We may be hard-wired for participation in the ongoing process of global information and communications systems self-replication; further, this may privilege function over semantics. The function being the participation in the process, the semantics being the meaning and revealed or discovered truths or facts of reality. The Universe may be structured in ways which privilege self-replicating logical, informational and material systems but the phylogenetic burden of an extended evolutionary process in biology and culture has created a human mind and society which is unwittingly and neurolinguistically oriented and probabilistically biased towards gossip over literary or scientific insight.

We have difficulty explaining the world because our own biological emergence in it privileges functional participation over structured intellectual insight, as information encoding or as subsequent communication of that structured data. Science and philosophy are also cognitive methods of informational self-replication but they remain improbable linguistic entities in comparison to the latest football scores or other common ideological caricatures of everyday thought, language and communication.

What we require most critically is insight and effective methods for sharing this valuable information to other minds. Again, it seems that our biological inheritance and all-too-human shared cognitive methods in language and the cognitive extension of technology may be actively (and counter-intuitively) working against our own (collective) best interests.

Living through Language

Do we live through words or do words live through us ?

Every conceivable assertion concerning individuation and singular possession of unique identity is made through the logical sequence of symbols and grammatical rules of language. In this system of information formulation, compression and transmission, meaningful statements serve first the purpose of replicating and validating the structure by which those messages are encoded in human language. While experience and perception are the ground of our existence, the filter and logic of symbolic communication is the method and tool set by which we render this existence intelligible. Unconscious, unstructured or prelinguistic states of mind are conceivable, perhaps inevitable, but it seems that in some way once a viral system of information encoding organically emerges, is adopted or acquired – it performs a mischievous act of deception. It is through language that we reflexively identify our own selves but in so doing, both internally and externally with others, we replicate the logic and structured sequence of the information encoding itself. We inhabit language but it equally and inversely inhabits us.

Any counter-argument is also formulated through structured thought and an associated private or public language. You can not *not* participate in the replication of a viral system of language and communication. Is language innate in the brain or purely a learned system ? It doesn’t matter – the primary purpose of any self-propagating information or energy pattern is that of autonomous self-replication and the method by which the structure reproduces itself is less important than the self-validating fact of that continuity. A self-propagating soliton is merely a materially happy coincidence of energy and context and we too, for all of our deeply narcissistic attachments to unique self-importance, are also (for the most part) merely happy concidences of self-propagating patterns and structure in matter and energy.

It is a genetic, axiomatic and foundational fact of our minds, our science and our technology: we live through words and structured self-replicating patterns of information and energy live through us.

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Logic: Blind-spots and Bootstraps

For the last couple of weeks I have been quite literally turning over a concept in my head. It is difficult to articulate clearly. Exploded-view models of mechanical systems approximate to logical analysis in ways that similar disassembly of organically complex and integrated materially complex systems do not. While we can only approach description of organic or significantly complex material systems through the vessel of sequential, procedural or linear and complicated (essentially – mechanical and algorithmic) logic, there is something lacking or void, a blind-spot or essential ontological vacuum which restricts the application of this logic to truly complex and holistically-integrated systems.

From within (and as emergent products of) the organic and materially complex we construct complicated, linear structural systems of explanation and causal reasoning. At the point where the system of explanation becomes an object of its own introspection, we can catch a glimpse of enigma, discontinuity and an associated opportunity. The complicated logic of explanation is unable to bootstrap itself into its own description in ways which the material world (certainly has no need to but also) manages to on many scales and dimensional or organisational levels, simultaneously.

Out of Context

Taken out of context (or explicit authorial intent), anything can appear (or be construed as) false. A perennial problem of effective communication appears to be in finding a useful balance between brevity and depth. A reduction of language and sentences to their most atomic form appears to sterilise the utility and flexibility of the tool set to some extent. Just how can we balance concise expression with a rich contextual semantics ?

Our internal associative word-clouds are dynamic, diverse and for the most part interpersonally divergent. Does consensus communication and its necessary related pool of shared interpretations and meanings effectively limit communication to a narrow aperture by which only those agreed-upon concepts can ever successfully self-propagate in or through media and speech or written conversation ? In what ways does a requirement for a significant pool of shared meanings shape possible future states of these communication spaces ? Active selection pressures of shared semantic intelligibility may adversely influence the range and depth of shared communication.

 

The Challenge of Communicating Complex Concepts

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The above image is a scale indicating the readability of text based on a standard calculation of the “Flesch–Kincaid readability test“. Higher scores indicate greater ease of reader comprehension. Even a casual cultural commentator or critic of human behaviour can see a pattern emerging here.

The information most easily consumed is also that which is most prevalent in our cultural and communications systems. While issues such as education level are likely to be a factor in this, the extent to which information and communications messaging is successful appears to be a consequence of topic popularity. Topic popularity is also undoubtedly influenced by ease of comprehension through text or concept simplicity.

Cultural and popular communications centrality and influence is a measure of the relative measure of simplicity of the associated communication method. This suggests a statistical correlation between what is written and the ease and speed with which that information is understood. I realise that this is something of a “no-brainer” but consider the consequences of this.

If simple messages are more popular, then political messaging finds itself lashed to the mast of aspiring to serially simple and uncomplicated representations of complex realities. The most easily understood messages are those which feature simple, repetitive sentences akin to sport and entertainment reports. Seeking and keeping audience share in political messaging then becomes a matter of the public juggling of four or five easily remembered and understood concepts.

The effect is that complex political, strategic and social issues become reduced in the popular imagination to ontological Lego, to a colourful crayon set with which to sketch pictures on the perennially blank walls of severely malnourished attention spans. The reflexive flip-side to this is that policy creation rapidly becomes a race to the bottom, a lowest-common-denominator montage of simple sentences and ideas. Powerful political incentives are set in motion in which the simplicity of a message (“build a wall”, “leave Europe”, etc.) becomes its key measure of successful propagation.

The challenge at this point becomes one of intelligent messaging and communications brevity or efficiency. If the reality of the world is that it is complex, interdependent and interconnected in fundamental ways and that this actual structural sophistication almost entirely invalidates the simplistic conceptual building blocks of an isolationist or (radical) nationalist agenda, what are the plausible methods by which popular messaging of this reality can be conducted ?

A first step might be to disassemble and disentangle the dependence of political tenure upon the cultivation of gullibility in a target audience. Beyond that, the task becomes one of negotiating an ocean of information and proliferating simplicities by introducing new narratives, myths and easily understood abstractions for popular consumption. The world is complex but the methods by which the facts of this complexity are conveyed need not be difficult to understand. This is one of the greatest challenges we currently face but it also represents an opportunity.

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Mediated Genuflection: Pointless Pontification

This particular (pictured, from Marketwatch) titular puff of media fluff is both: a completely vacuous waste of screen (and in teleological consequence: brain) real estate in genuflection to a vast commercial technology Empire; and, a fascinating instance of the many ways in which the referential systems of language and meaning perennially and autonomously dissect their own narratives, structures and idioms to construct sentential entities out of an inconsequential vacuum of actual facts or relevance. Self-propagating linguistic methods, full of culturally recursive sound and fury; signifying nothing.

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