Back in the day people knew what was real because they could walk on it, they could see it, everything about their world was understandable in the context of their physical surroundings. Concepts in their head were like the kinds of things that were right around them, things they could directly interact with. A motive like hunger could be directly connected to the physical world in basic steps through things like hunting or foraging.
To hunt, they might need a spear, which is made of tree and stone, just like their environment; their tools were recognizable in their source materials, and those were a regular component of their environment. The relation between a tool and its raw material was a process done with their own hands, right in front of their faces. Hunting itself is something they could readily spot in their environment: many fellow animals can be observed to hunt. The connections between the concepts in their head nicely mirrored the connections between the objects in their world. Forming that correspondence didn’t have to be a conscious process–mere observation produced it.
Now we have concepts in our head that don’t correspond to anything physical or concrete. We have things like the Internet or vaccines, where our understanding of how they work is very different from the way we interact with them. What does getting poked in the arm have to do with antigens and possibly dying 10 years from now? What does poking a bright screen to talk to a friend have to do with TCP/IP packets, RISC processors, or rare earth elements? Even many of our labels, our tokens for communication are acronyms, which are an extra layer of abstraction.
And that’s just consumer technology; the same is true with politics, for example. How, if at all, does marking a paper beside someone’s name relate to changes in wealth received from work, or to changes in what will be demanded of us in the future?
If we get hungry, we go to the store to get food, which is a processed product, which means the ingredients and their source are unknown except as abstract classification (made from apple, not any specific apple, not even any specific cultivar, and definitely not an apple that was in this hand, picked from a known, specific tree) and means we get it by giving currency (which can take many forms, made from many different materials, somehow, issued by some organization running in some unknown way, controlled by people who want to remain unknown).
Everything we interact with is just the surface layer and beneath it are layers upon layers of abstraction, and the vast majority of people, if not everyone, don’t know all the layers between the concepts we have in our heads that let us interact with it and the physical reality around us that we can see and touch. There are entire fields of knowledge, entire communities of individuals, complete layers of reality that mostly everyone is unaware of.
There is no ground to our reality. We know some tips and tricks that let us get by in this world (until new technology changes it), but without knowing all the sub-surface layers (which is probably impossible now), we can only make guesses about what’s real. We’re not even sure of what kind of things are possible.
We don’t know what’s underneath the surface, and so we have no way of knowing if or when the surface will give out or fail, so every step we make feels like a risk, as if we’re walking on thin ice, except that there’s no water underneath: we have no idea what’s underneath.
On some level, we know that at any give time, in the next moment we may be falling into an abyss, and so we have an ever-present subconscious sense of vertigo.
One attempt to adapt to this situation is to just pretend it’s not a problem, to not worry about what’s beneath the surface, to only take things at face value, and to unthinkingly accept any absurdities that this inevitably results in.
Maybe that’s what most people are doing right now–it would explain a lot.
- Rick Roderick on Baudrillard – Fatal Strategies Part 8 of 8. The Self Under Siege: Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (1993)
- I wrote most of this text while this video was paused at 31:20
- Poz Button – Videodrome
- Where I heard of the Roderick lecture