posttitle = Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t” titleClass =title-long len =53

Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”

5th in the “I can tell for myself” sequence. Previous post: The primacy of knowing-for-oneself

This is a short post that introduces the second half of the sequence. The first half focused on what it means to have a sense of being able to tell something for yourself (direct-knowing or “gnosis”) as contrasted with taking someone’s word for it, and how people get out of touch with their own knowing, in many little moments as children and structurally as a society. The remainder of the sequence investigates interactions between people, tensions that arise depending on how well each person is tracking their sense of being able to tell for themselves, and possibilities for collective direct-knowing: “we can tell for ourself”.

So. Sometimes one person can tell for themselves, while another is taking others’ word for it. There are a few ways that can go. Sometimes the asymmetries are simple, functional and productive; well, relatively—there are a few caveats. These simple functional asymmetries are what this post is about—companies being one example.

Lopsided conversations

When there’s a conversation between one person who is consistently checking everything that’s being said with whether it accords with their experience, and another who isn’t, the conversation can easily become lopsided, with the person who is grounded in their own self-trust ending up with a position of authority. That’s not the only place that social authority comes from (institutional power, or pure charisma spouting bullshit, work just fine for that) but I would say that it produces a kind of authority that holds up under quite a bit of inspection, which naturally engenders a kind of sustained trust from others.

When this is the case, the person who is uncompromisingly checking everything with their own experience ends up exerting kind of a large gravitational force on the conversation, and people let them do this in part because they don’t know how to access their own full weight, and in part because the other person does seem to be speaking with a kind of grounded honesty.

Prompt: A dramatic scene depicting two men in a conversation. One man stands on the edge of a rugged cliff, dressed in casual hiking gear. His posture is assertive, and he is making strong gestures with his hands. Facing him is another man standing on a towering pile of speech bubbles, symbolizing an intent verbal exchange. The speech bubble pile is as high as the cliff, putting both men at eye level. The background features a dramatic sky with dark clouds, enhancing the intense atmosphere of the scene. Both men are of average build, one with short hair and the other slightly longer.
AI-generated by ChatGPT+DALL-E with my prompt: a guy standing on a cliff’s edge, arguing eye to eye with a guy standing on a pile of speech bubbles (view image alt for the full prompt used)

And so this authority may override what others say since the others don’t trust their own “I can tell for myself” sense, so they speak in a kind of flimsy floaty way (not to say it might not sound confident, just that its source of confidence is not in the room). Simultaneously, the authority may not be bothered by people attempting to put out ideas, because they’re grounded in what they know rather than subject to some ideology that they need to uphold in order to maintain their legitimacy. And in technical domains where there’s a clearer sense that we can converge on the right answer, there can be lively debate and the authority will recognize “oh wait, you’re right, my bad”. In general, conversations in technical domains tend to have more sense of everybody involved having at least some sense of “I can tell for myself”.

My guess is that a lot of (relatively) healthy companies have a bit of this going on, and it’s not ideal but it’s legit better than a company where everybody is bullshitting, like I described in the oppressive cultures post. And there are definitely attractors, but there’s no clear binary distinction between any of the dynamics I describe anywhere in this sequence. Many situations could be analyzed through the lens of different kinds of dynamics, and multiple elements might be present or relevant at the same time.

The stability & simplicity of asymmetry & hierarchy

It’s been observed by many people over the years that while consensus has various kinds of appeal, it is often much less efficient and effective than having someone who is in charge for some scope of project or whatever, and can decisively choose what’s going to happen. There is a deeper level of complexity possible, of collective consciousness or co-what-now’ing, where everybody is fluidly organizing and integrating and differentiating and so on—the fully meta-rational workplace—but that’s hard and even the forefront of development of our species can only kinda do it sometimes. So it’s often more workable to just have one person call the shots—at least at a given level; maybe someone else calls the shots within their subproject, etc.

Likewise, collective knowing is often simplest when there’s one person who gets to call the shots on what’s real and what matters and what’s relevant and so on. Who gets to set the frame. And this can be decided just based on power, whether that’s money or the person who started the company or whatever. But it can be pretty ungrounded if the person who is at the center isn’t in touch with their “I can tell for myself” sense. They might themselves get buffeted around by all sorts of things—market trends and fashions, what someone else said was cool, a skeptical look when they presented an idea, or whatever. And then what the group had agreed on last week is suddenly a no-go.

To some extent, merely having a lot of power will also grant someone the right to be operating from their own sense of things, in the sense that they can perhaps fire or kick out of a group people they don’t like without having to justify it—which, again, can be both good (sometimes committees are very bad at handling murky nebulous fuckery in their midsts) or bad (sometimes . But… I guess you could say that for many people, their different knowings aren’t particularly well-integrated, and so some knowings may call some shots at some times and other knowings may have contradictory approaches at other times.

But if exactly one person has an ongoing and stable sense of what matters and how it all fits together, and they’re in charge, this can become the kind of anchor point around which others’ knowings can flow. This makes it substantially easier to have some semblance of a collective sense of what’s going on. That sense of what’s going on is not nearly as robust as it would be if it were coming from everybody and grounded in everyone’s experience, but it’s substantially better than if there’s no ground at all, and interestingly it also seems to work better than if everybody has a sense of “I can tell for myself” but those senses don’t know how to integrate (more on this in later posts).

Hyperobjects and reality distortion fields

Many leaders & founders can see a big complex shape that nobody else can see, whether that insight comes from design, science, human nature & psychology, markets, branding & narrative, confluences of other technologies, or whatever. Often they’ve read or thought a ton about a topic that few others have, and the others who have gone as deep are off running a different company or organization, so within their local surroundings they’re the only one perceiving this complex structure. And maybe there are ways to get others a bit up to speed, by sharing key insightful resources (eg my friend Conor White-Sullivan was trying to get the whole Roam team to read & annotate Doug Engelbart’s seminal piece Augmenting Human Intellect). But these shapes are whole ways of thinking, and don’t transmit easily!

At the risk of slightly warping the concept of a hyperobject, which was coined by Timothy Morton to refer to phenomena such as climate change that are so big and complex that (unlike a cup, or a soccer game, or even the financial situation of a store) they can’t be perceived by a single individual… perhaps we can think of an individual’s deep view of something complex as being analogous to a hyperobject with respect to another individual’s viewpoint. Not quite the same but similar dynamics apply.

When you’re trying to behold a hyperobject and you can’t see the whole thing, at best what you end up seeing is a projection of it. A prototypical example of a projection is a shadow or a drawing of a 3D object. The drawing represents the deeper reality of the 3D object, maybe enough for someone else to build it perfectly, but it has fewer dimensions. Or a map takes the living 3D world and turns it into a schema that’s good for navigating but missing a ton of detail that’s there in the actual world. Similarly, consider your own body at this moment. It’s a kind of thin slice of the entire organism that is you across time, from your childhood, birth, and single-celled origin… until your eventual death or teleportation-cloning or cryogenic freezing and uploading.

But where the 3D→2D imagistic kind of projection is very well-understood (and embodiedly familiar to what our eyes do) and often easy to reverse (illusions notwithstanding), when dealing with complex hyperobjects we’re talking about something more like projecting something 10-dimensional down to 2 or 3 dimensions. The basic gist might be retained, but a lot of the complexity is lost, and often this complexity is the source of why the hyperobject even matters in the first place.

Moreover, even more extreme than how a physical 3D object can look radically different from the top vs the side, this reduction of dimensionality can produce wildly different and seemingly incompatible views of something that people expect to be relatively stable, such as the company vision. How do these different projects all fit together?! Why are we doing this, now?

A good leader accounts for this and is able to rotate the shape slowly enough that their followers don’t lose faith. There’s a particular frustrating failure mode where a project gets abandoned midway through because a new facet of the hyperobject has rotated into view and the old aspects no longer seem as important. Even more frustrating is when later the first thing becomes important again, but in a way where the followers don’t trust that it won’t be abandoned. Often it’s a kind of general shortsightedness and tunnel-vision and neurotic urgency on the leader’s part that keeps them from noticing the impact this can have on the team.

But it’s also probably a function of being the main person who can tell for themselves what’s going on with the hyperobject, and thus not taking others seriously as a source of priority. And the challenge is that to some extent is appropriate! …but people may know something important and real about local tactical priorities even if they don’t see the whole strategic picture.

Overall, organizations are way more capable of doing complex and creative things to the extent that everybody can access their own sense of being able to tell for themselves. And to a large extent even in the kind of system I’ve been describing, where there’s a big asymmetry, people are still steering by their own direct-knowing except when it conflicts with what the leader seems to them to think.

In this post I’ve mostly been talking about systems that are working primarily on doing something relatively concrete and external. To some extent these dynamics could also apply to a group of people who is doing something concrete and “internal”, like a family or household, which doesn’t per se have a mission but wants to survive and thrive.

But things get complex when the group is about learning & developing, ie it has an aim of its own self-transformation or insight. And this is common, because often someone who is grounded in their own experience and direct-knowing may want to help people (“students” or just those they’re living or working with) also access their own self-trust, which is a noble aim… that brings us to…

Next post in sequence: Guru dynamics: “I can show you how to trust yourself”

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

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