Collective Consciousness (2/13/98)

Matthew Hutson

"Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view," Baudrillard sets forth on page ten of Simulacra and Simulation. I believe this sets the tone for the remainder of the essay. The main issue here is one of process. What role does process play in our lives and our realities? Linear development leads one thing to another through causal relationships. One can document each stage of the process and review how each step leads to each other step. What Baudrillard proposes, and what I think we all instinctively feel, is that society is becoming so complex and so fast-paced and so abstract that it is impossible to document linear cause and effect relationships beyond a very short reach. Every image, every religion, every methodology, every flu, every syllable that our society manufactures gets fed back into the system. In my secular view, we are not here on earth creating something that we will present to another being. We are a self-contained unit. Society is not a product but a process, a constant feeding and producing and remanipulating of patterns. Despite this dynamic activity, we are still trying to hold on to our past. This presents a question that we must continually (approaching continuously, just at summations approach integrals in calculus) ask ourselves: How do we find a balance between the new and the old, the changing and the stable?

Without context, innovation becomes chaotic, and without innovation, context pretty much just sits where it is and doesn't go anywhere. As we reach out with our new technologies, we create new and different connections between people. Quick, efficient, powerful links between different minds with different ideas. Using the WWW and e-mail, even more so than with snail-mail, telephone, radio, television, or books, we can see very clearly the feedback process that evolves our society. Ideas, patterns, memes, symbols get tossed around until they have lost all original context. This is what Baudrillard means about fantasy replacing a real that never existed. Minds collect information, process it, and produce more information for other minds to collect. I construct a reality in relationship to the sensations and information around me, constantly picking up fragments of ideas and experiences and integrating them into what I have called a self. My self then echoes a frequently dissimilar version of the original experience through communication with others, which includes all unconscious communication created through any kind of interaction with the world around me. In this way, fragments of reality get mixed around by communication and create feedback. (I sometimes describe consciousness as a feedback loop. This is true in many ways. Use your imagination.) We lose sight of the original experience, or we come across a manipulated echo of an experience and interpolate the reality that we think must have caused this echo, while often deceiving ourselves. Cause and Effect relationships are lost in this chaos.

The decay of our linear model of society signals drastic cultural evolution, and much of this is exciting. Our understandings of ourselves, our relationships with each other, our technological advancements, our basis of scientific understanding, and even our creative expression are hurtling forward at unmatched speeds. As soon has one person has an idea or wears a certain t-shirt, a week later half of the United States claims the same idea or wears the same t-shirt. Movies frequently show up in theaters with references to news stories that are still in the headlines. (Wag the Dog, which came out at the end of 1997, shows the same picture of Clinton shaking Monica Lewinsky's hand that I saw on the news last week.) Novel concepts are rarely born whole these days. Rather, people pick up ideas, put their own spin on them, and pass them on. Concepts (sometimes called memes) evolve in a way that is difficult to track; our entire society often acts as one mind generating new concepts together. Even huge developments such as calculus and the theory of evolution appeared in more than one area of the world at approximately the same time. This implies that perhaps the people credited with these discoveries were merely standing on the shoulders of giants, as [Einstein? Davinci?] said; they made relatively small intellectual leaps ahead of common knowledge.

As the turnover rate increases and cultural evolution becomes a blur, we still hold on to our copyrights and our patents, scared that someone else will take our credit, while most of our own ideas come from people around us. The world is beginning to act as one huge parallel processor, a giant quantum computation device, a grand transcendent consciousness. Quantum mechanics tells us that until one tries to detect which of several paths a particle has taken, it has actually taken all of them. Perhaps this limbo, this filling-in between paths (that I visualize as a one-dimensional line spreading apart to create a two-dimensional band that covers several one-dimensional lines) is the nature of abstraction. Attempting to claim credit and emphasize process is the same, I argue, as detecting a particle's particular paths: it kills the abstraction, dampens the nonlinear parallel processing, and perhaps precludes consciousness (or pan-/trans-consciousness.) Individual neurons, as far as I know, don't try to claim credit for thoughts. Thus, as we furiously "stockpile the past in plain view," we severely limit our potential.

There exists another side to this story, of course. Everyone is familiar with e-mail chain-letters and spam. Someone writes an annoying ditty about bad luck just for fun, and within a day and a half it's covered the whole continent. Cultural phenomena such as these may be harmless, or even amusing as in the cases of urban legends, but they can also become cancerous. Stories, perspectives, STD's spread without bases. The WWW is revolutionary as a research tool, but there is little to no regulation. Netscape makes no distinctions between professional sites, misinformed gossip pages, humorous antics, and hateful propaganda. In sacrificing our attention to process, we have lost a sense of context. We have gained the speedy, efficient transmission of patterns, but these patterns are detached from their histories.

Science is not based upon facts, but upon process. Scientific fact changes every day. What holds it all together is a (relatively) consistent set of guidelines for carrying out experiments, verifying data, and compiling procedures. A scientist pays little attention to any claim that is reviewed out of context; to divorce a conclusion from its process is to nullify that conclusion. If we do not apply this principle to the rest of society, what will hold us together? What will provide structure, reference, consistency? Unchecked, society could spiral out of control and disperse into chaos.

Government has offered us boundaries. We don't need boundaries. They don't work. We need methodology. Rather than helping people to understand drugs, for instance, The Man simply tells us not to do them, and if we do, He places us inside of a concrete cell. But we cannot let drug use run rampant, so we educate.

All of this leaves us in a difficult position. We are on the brink of an information revolution, and we don't know yet how to react. Atoms have come together to form molecules, molecules have formed cells, cells have cooperated to created plants and animals, and these all work together within an ecosystem. Similarly, we can will expand consciousness to then next level: simulcra will take over and we will achieve trans-/pan-/hyper-consciousness.

[To other discussions of Baudrillard by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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