How Do We Stay Free… When Algorithms Shapes Our Perception of Reality?

A story told is a story written: the stories that we believe in reinforce our understanding of reality. So, what is true, then
February 23, 2021

How Do We Stay Free… When Algorithms Shapes Our Perception of Reality?

In some shamanic traditions, there is a concept that stories recreate reality as soon as they are spoken aloud.

Taken to its most literal extreme, this idea would (wrongly) imply that every word spoken holds the power to create or destroy reality, perhaps instantly, and perhaps for everyone.

When made even more extreme, this simple notion about storytelling becomes the basis for ideas like “magic spells,” wizards and warlocks, and other fanciful myths and legends whereby our stories and words, arranged in a certain order, give the speaker the untold power to radically change physical reality, warp time and space, and alter shape and form, all with a dramatic whoosh of a wand or blast of magic.

And yet, at its most refined and essential essence, the idea behind this shamanic tradition is a very simple one.

There is little to no difference between perception and reality; our reality is an almost-instantaneous reflection of our perception of it.

In other words, a story told is a story written.

When we tell the story, life, in essence, becomes that.

(No magic spells, portions, or wands required.)

Whatever we believe to be true becomes our perceived reality.

This ancient wisdom about the power of storytelling reflects what we now know to be true about human psychology today: the stories that we tell — comprised of the words we choose, the thoughts we think, and the emotions and feelings that we feel and respond to and inhabit — become our own individual understanding of our reality.

It’s not “the whole world” that changes — let alone instantly, or for everyone — just because we tell a story one way or the other.

It’s that our world changes.

How we see, feel, and interpret the outer landscape is a reflection of our inner world.

Our stories shape and dictate our perception of reality.

Which poses, all at once, some very beautiful possibilities… and some very troublesome dilemmas.

Enter: The Age of Internet Algorithms

Today, with the advent of not just the Internet and social media but smart algorithms that work nonstop to decipher our feelings and emotions, influence our buying habits and capitalize upon our impulses, even distort our political interests and rewire our core beliefs, we are living in an inherently dangerous time.

The tools that we use every day hold, perhaps, an even greater power to shape our overarching perceptions of reality — even more than the stories that we tell our own selves.

I don’t mean to be an alarmist or sound paranoia.

But we’re seeing the implications these days.

Our realities can be distorted through persistent lying. Manipulative or power-hungry people who have selfish self-interests can more easily exploit others’ fears, worries, insecurities, grievances, wants, or needs through persistent adherence to false-realities — and the amplifying power of technology.

Even still, I, like you, am not a renunciant running off to a cabin in the woods to avoid this dangerous landscape.

I use the Internet daily — including to communicate here with you.

I access and engage in social media, mass media, and traditional media.

I am sure that algorithms aplenty are influencing me and my perceptions.

I even cave, perhaps like you, to an impulse purchase from an ad on Instagram every once in a while.

And yet, the perpetual optimist in me — the believer in people; the advocate of what is good and just and fair — still wonders, “If this is the reality in which we live today, what are we to do about it?”

What are we to do with it?

How might we lessen the danger of losing our self-governed and chosen stories — which would mean surrendering to a reality impressed upon us that is distorted, or falsified, or warped, especially for others’ own special self-interests?

If I could answer these enormous questions in a single line, or a newsletter, or an essay, I would.

Of course, I can’t.

But I do believe that there may be some essential components or ingredients that can support our continued autonomy.

3 Qualities to Protect Our Self-Guided Stories

1. Curiosity. Implicit in a curious mindset is an openness to new possibilities and ideas. If we are reactive, triggered, or confronted by different perspectives, views, or ideas, we close ourselves off to new possibilities and therefore risk losing ourselves to falsified realities.

We need to stay curious if we are to stay free.

2. Skepticism. You might be surprised to hear me suggest that skepticism is beneficial for our own freedom, but isn’t it true? Sure, in its most extreme form, skepticism becomes an immovable and debilitating disease of the spirit: cynicism, jadedness, and disbelief.

But some doubt or skepticism or disbelief is absolutely critical for staying free and open-minded.

I recall the scientific process, which I first learned about in the 8th grade, which implores us to apply “rigorous skepticism” to whatever we observe.

The point isn’t to be totally cynical, but to retain a healthy sense of independent thought about what we perceive or observe. Skepticism protects freedom.

3. Diversity. Diversity of representation, viewpoints, stories, interests, perspectives, beliefs, and ideas is necessarily freeing because it challenges whatever we perceive to be “absolute truth.” In other words, the diversity of stories, views, and experiences abolishes the stagnating effect of “whatever we see most, we believe is true for all.”

Diversity cracks the veneer of certainty and undoes the propensity that we all have as humans to fall ignorant to others’ experiences in this life, just because they aren’t our own.

The more we diversify — our groups, our interactions, and connections, our exposure to stories and media, etc. — the greater the likelihood that we will stay free, and grow freer, to the actual truth of the reality that we share with others.

When, and Why, We Ought to Change Our Stories… for Ourselves

The age of the Internet algorithm makes it a lot easier, and a lot more unrelenting, that our perceptions of the world can falsify our reality… all because someone wants us to buy a thing, or to consider voting in a certain way, or to feel comforted or assured about how we’re feeling because it appears to be “true” or “real” for everyone, not just ourselves.

But even before the Internet, this was true.

We can, and do, always choose our reality.

Human beings always have.

We possess the power to choose the reality that we live.

The human power that we possess to shape our perceptions of reality is one that we ought to practice with great responsibility. I don’t believe that we possess this autonomous choice to live in our own “realities” so that we can live in willful ignorance, or be self-righteous or indignant.

The “point” is not to craft a reality that comforts us.

I believe our human power to reshape our understanding of reality exists so that we may exist in a shared reality with others.

To share a reality with others — as many as humanly possible, in fact — is what ensures our survival as a species, and allows for the betterment of life on earth for as many people as possible.

We, individually, work and practice to break out of myths and governing realities that are skewed, untrue, or falsified, not so that we may exist in some nebulous, confusing, truthless reality, but so we may unite among one another in an agreed-upon reality.

A reality that we jointly want to live in.

Only when we enter into this agreed-upon reality may we make all of our lives, and our society, and our world, a better place.

That’s the story that I want to tell.

That’s the story that I want to live in.