From Paradox to Awe

This is the eighth post based on a new book by Douglas Rushkoff titled “TEAM HUMAN.” The title of this post is identical to the title of the ninth section of this book.

Rushkoff writes, “Team human has the ability to tolerate and even embrace ambiguity. The stuff that makes our thinking and behavior messy, confusing or anomalous is both our greatest strength and our greatest defense agains the deadening certainty of machine logic.”

In our definitive age, definitive answers are readily at hand. All questions seem to be but a web search aware. Computers are definitive because they have to be. We are mistaken to emulate the certainty of our computers. With computers, there is no in-between state. Ambiguity is not permitted.

Rushkoff argues it is precisely this ambiguity, and our ability to embrace it, that characterizes the collectively felt human experience. Mobiles strips and Zen koans (what is the sound of one hand clapping?) can only be engaged from multiple perspectives and sensibilities. We have two brain hemispheres and it takes both to create the multidimensional conceptual picture we think of as reality.

The brain is not like a computer hard drive. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between things we’ve experienced and data points in the brain. Perception is active, not receptive. There are more neural circuits running down to predict what we perceive than neural circuits leading from our receptors. Our eyes take in 2D fragments and the brain renders them as 3D images. We take abstract concepts and assembly them into a perceived thing or situation. Rushkoff writes, “We don’t see ‘fire truck’ so much as gather details and then manufacture a fire truck.”

Rushkoff continues, “Our ability to be conscious—to have that sense of what-is-it-like-to-see-something—depends on our awareness and participation in interpreting them. Confusing moments provide us opportunities to experience our complicity in reality creation.”

Continuing further, “It’s also what allows us to do all those things that computers have been unable to learn: how to contend with paradox, engage with irony, or even interpret a joke. Doing any of this depends on what neuroscientists call relevance theory. We don’t think and communicate in whole pieces, but infer things based on context. We receive fragments of information from one another and then see what we know about the world to re-create the whole message ourselves. It’s how a joke arrives in your head: some assembly is required, That moment of ‘getting it’ putting together together oneself—is the pleasure of active reception. Ha! and Aha! are very close relatives.”

Rushkoff notes that art, at its best, mines the paradoxes that make humans human. Pro-human art produces open-ended stories, without clear victors or well-defined conflicts. The works don’t answer questions. They raise them. The “problem plays” of Shakespeare defied easy plot analysis, as characters take apparently unmotivated actions. They’re the abstract paintings of Kandinsky or Delaunay, which maintain distance from real-work visual references. These images only sort of represent figures. The observing human mind is the real subject of the work, as it tries and fails to identify objects that correspond perfectly with the images. This process itself mirrors the way our brains identify things in the “real” world by perceiving and assembling fragmented details. Rushkoff writes that this art stretches out the process of seeing and identifying, so we can revel in the strange phenomenon of human perception.

Rushkoff writes, “Loose ends distinguish art from commerce. The best, most humanizing art doesn’t depend on spoilers. What is the ‘spoiler’ in a painting by Picasso or a novel by James Joyce. The impact of a classically structured art film like ‘Citizen Kane’ isn’t compromised even if we know the surprise ending. These masterpieces don’t reward us with answers, but with new sorts of question. Any answers are constructed by the audience, provisionally and collaboratively, through the active interpretation of their work.”

Rushkoff writes that the state of awe may be the peak of human experience. He asks if humans’ unique job is to be conscious, what more human thing can we do than blow our observing minds? Beholding the panoramic view from a mountaintop, witnessing the birth of a child, staring into a starry sky, or standing with thousands of others in march or celebration, all dissolve our sense of self as separate and distinct. We experience ourselves as both the observing eye and the whole of which we are part. Although this is an impossible concept, it is still an undeniable experience of power and passivity, awareness and acceptance.

Psychologists inform us that the experience of awe can counteract self-focus, stress, apathy, and detachment, Awe helps people act with an increased sense of meaning and purpose, turning our attention away from the self and toward our collective self-interest. Awe even regulates the cytokine response and reduces inflammation. New research has shown that after just a few moments of awe, people behave with increased altruism, cooperation, and self-sacrifice. This efficiency suggests that awe makes people feel like part of something larger than themselves, which in turn makes then less narcissistic and more attuned to the needs of those around them.

Rushkoff concludes this section by stating, “True awe is timeless, limitless, and without division. It suggest there is a unifying whole to which we all belong—if only we could hold onto that awareness.”

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