26 August 2005

Invisibility, and the Case for Structural Change

Invisibility, about which I wrote yesterday, is largely culturally conditioned. We can also condition ourselves to make things temporarily invisible, that is, not perceptible or noticeable. Biologically, it makes sense that we are wired this way – it allows us to avoid distractions and to filter out the relatively static information in our environment to better detect anomalies, like tigers rustling in the bushes, (or protesters rustling the Bushes…) The ability to make things invisible can be conditioned or trained, as a long term base, or learned for a short term purpose. Essentially, it is the mechanism that enables us to recognize patterns amidst a rich, but generally constant, ground.

There are some empirical experiments that demonstrate this phenomenon quite effectively. In one (scroll down to “inattention blindness” and try the “opaque gorilla” java applet), the observer’s task is to explicitly notice the activity of players wearing light clothing, and ignore the players wearing dark clothes. When a person wearing a dark gorilla costume enters the scene, she is ignored. When the task requirement is eliminated, the gorilla’s appearance is obvious. Another experiment involves a change that happens across a scene cut. Since we have been conditioned for linearity in cinematic story-telling, we assume character continuity across scene cuts. Changes are simply not noticed.

Research on culturally-differentiated observation indicates that these instances of selective invisibility are indeed cultural artefacts; Toronto School of Communication theory suggests that they are consequently technological artefacts, for example of the different forms of writing – ideographic vs. phonetic, and culturally-mediated differences in the ways narrative is constructed. But these findings also suggest that similar mechanisms can be deliberately employed to exploit other cultural constructs to enable invisibility and assumptive continuity for the benefit of enterprises that rely on influencing behaviour – politics, advertising, management, military, education, and religion, among others.

As these are culturally – hence technologically and medially – conditioned and enabled, changes in technology will change observers’ responses to the invisibility effect: what is invisible to a generation on one side of a technological divide will be obviously evident to those on the other side.

Historically, at the break boundary between primary oral and primary literate cultures, there always is, and has been, conflict. At the break boundary between primary literate and primary audile cultures, we should expect to find conflict – and that is precisely where and when we are living: at that break boundary. The big push for literacy today can be “read” as a violent, colonial action of an older generation against a younger one that will ultimately be futile. The intellectual property debates, and technology that attempts to maintain the dominance of literate artefacts – privacy, ownership of intangibles, authority, hierarchies of power – are aggressively propagandizing against the changes that are emerging from the very innovations that the former culture created.

The kids today are different. Not because they are biologically more adept at technological devices than their parents were, but because they are being socialized in a world that is different from that of their parents in profound ways. This divide (and conflict) does not happen in cultures in which technologies and media remain largely unchanged generation to generation. But in developed countries today, there are several generations of technological change within one genealogical generation. The acceleration of change may be more characteristic of conditions at the break boundary rather than of the technology itself - that remains to be seen. However, because of that accelerated intra-generational technological change, cultural conditioning for invisibility – what is systematically not noticed – changes significantly between one generation and another. And for the enterprises that I noted earlier – politics, advertising, management, military, education, religion – that specifically rely on culturally conditioned invisibility, this reality means either trouble, or the necessity to influence behaviour in a way that embraces the phenomenon of emergent transparency. This, in turn, necessitates fundamental and structural change to these enterprises, and the people who run them.
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