Monday, August 9, 2010

Piercing the Veil

So I've got a new hobby: when I look around, I try to see the story behind everything I see - everything it took to make it, all the different processes that were necessary for it to come into being, things like that. It's simultaneously exhilarating and humbling and occasionally enlightening [in the negative space sense of suddenly realizing something you don't know]. It can even be transformative, in that you may never look at the world the same way again.

An example: I am riding my bike home from work. The bike itself is a marvel of applied physics - the impossibly thin spokes on the wheels that actually support your weight by hanging the bike from the tops of the wheels; the clever use of gyroscopic forces to keep the bike stable while it's in motion; the adjustable gear system which you can reconfigure as you ride. You could teach an entire physics course just by looking at a bicycle in motion. A bus rolls past, inviting you to consider not only the mechanics of how it runs (the entire history of internal combustion could go here) or why it runs (the efficiencies of mass transit), but also the entire superstructure of government which makes public transportation possible. The sidewalks and roads I'm riding on are made of cement - a building material which is dirt-cheap, uniform, pervasive, and commoditized. Really, it's a perfect analogy for our mass-produced society. As for the roads themselves, they constitute a single, unbroken web which stretches across the entire continent; think about that for a minute. (There's an interested design principle embedded here: if you want a pervasive system of roads, you don't start by building roads. You start by building cars, and the roads will come.) There are buildings by the sides of the road, and every individual component and overall feature has a rich and varied history - glass, steel, central heating/cooling, architecture, fluorescent lights (and the electrical grid they imply), indoor plumbing, and don't forget the construction equipment used to put it all together. If you wanted to build a modern office building from scratch, it would take centuries of technological development.

There is a Veil of abstraction which we apply to everyday life, because our minds are simply not equipped to think like this all the time. We need to take things for granted if we want to be able to function. It can be fun to pierce the Veil once in a while, and take a sip from the geyser of extraneous information that fills our world, but it's not a sustainable state of mind. I won't bother with value judgments here. The Veil is neither good, nor evil, nor anything in between, it simply is.

And if we're bored enough and perhaps stubborn enough, we could even try to peel back the Veil from the Veil itself, from the very fact that we only see the world for what it is, and not everything underneath. There are Darwinian forces in there, enhanced but certainly not altered by capitalism, which drive us to produce and to be productive, and weed us out ruthlessly if we fall into the trap of looking too deeply at the world, and spend our lives wandering around in slack-jawed wonder. There's that fact that our mental processes are fundamentally and severely limited and finite, which lies somewhere at the awkward intersection of information theory and neuroscience.

So the Veil is a necessary part of our lives, and we couldn't pull it back if we wanted to, but I think it's fun to peek behind it every once in a while.


Æther said...

I've been doing this from time to time for years. I think it may in part be the reason Wikipedia is so pervasive and easy to spend hours using.

tort said...


There is something so exhilarating in realizing how much we don't know... about EVERYTHING. It's ridiculous how much we take for granted (or just flat out ignore).

I think this curious "lifting the veil" mentality is the probably best motivation for schooling/working. Like, if I wasn't completely blown away by however-the-fuck networks of neurons turn electrical signals into perceptual experience, I would have dropped out of this stupid academic rat race YEARS ago. :P

And it's interesting to see how different people break up the world-- there are so many overlapping systems at work!

Also-- new blog? *lurk*