Consciousness dethroned

The mind's I only thinks it's in charge, argues 'The User Illusion.'

Published July 8, 1998 9:46PM (EDT)

Popular science writers are an excitable breed. They have to be: If they fail to infect readers with their giddiness over complex theories and frequently radical ideas about the world as we know it, then science might as well be left to the encastled brain lords who do it for a living.

Unfortunately, in their rush to craft a compelling story, science writers often do as much damage as good, slipstreaming for quick consumption issues that science still doubts. The danger is that this meta-narrative will then supplant wisdom -- prompting, say, rotten blockbuster movies about asteroids decimating the Earth, or bogus legends about life on Mars based on observations of structures that only look like canals.

Tor Norretranders is the Danish James Gleick -- a writer who knows a Big Idea when he sees it and possesses the skill to neuter that idea's thorny patches without babying his readers. His "The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size" -- a bestseller in Denmark following its original publication in 1991 -- is the result of just such a science writer's "eureka!"

Norretranders could scarcely have done better than to stumble across the "user illusion," a notion he copped from Alan Kay, the interface-design guru. According to Kay: "The 'user illusion' ... is the simplified myth everyone builds to explain ... the system's actions and what should be done next." Blending information theory, neuroscience, cosmology, physics, theology and a grab bag of thumbnail philosophy, Norretranders sets out to demonstrate that human consciousness is an overbuffed example of just such a user illusion.

"Consciousness," he argues, "is a fraud," a liar that deceives us into believing that it runs the show when in fact it lags significantly behind unconscious decision making (as a groundbreaking and controversial series of experiments by Benjamin Libet revealed). Only a half-second behind, but that's enough to play havoc with the continuum of human assumptions about how our heads work. If, for instance, consciousness is the mental equivalent of a con man, convincing us -- in Norretranders-speak -- that our narcissistic "I," not our intuitive "Me," is the boss, what happens to free will?

This concerns Norretranders -- but what really has him worried is the fundamental irony that the user illusion foists on the Information Age. Joining a discussion of Maxwell's demon (a thermodynamic problem that has vexed scientists since the mid-19th century) with some trendier current lingo, Norretranders warns that man has "moved down to a lower bandwidth, and he is getting bored." Consciousness, naturally, is at fault, implying that it's tapped into a vast river of data when in truth our subliminal experiences are considerably richer. "The ability of consciousness to assimilate the world," Norretranders writes, "has been seriously overestimated by our scientific culture."

This salvo has grave implications for practically everything that people do, even the goofy stuff. Remember listening to those old Led Zeppelin or Beatles albums when you were a sullen teen, anxiously struggling to discern the backward-masked, supposedly satanic messages? It turns out that the usually futile effort was, once again, consciousness getting in the way. It's not that you need to try hard to catch subliminal information; subliminal information is everywhere, all the time. Consciousness simply dupes you into believing that it isn't. The real world is backward-masked.

Norretranders differs from the standard American science scribe in his willingness to surrender the pretense of objectivity to an agenda. As his subtitle indicates, he's no friend of haughty consciousness, with its embrace of strict, low-bandwidth reason, straight lines and keyboard drudgery. Instead, he craves sexy fractals, shills for nonlinear thinking and wallows in the freestyle cognition of pro soccer players -- all because be feels that they represent more accurately the truth of human experience. "There is a terrain between order and chaos," he writes, "a vast undiscovered continent -- the continent of complexity. The precondition for discovering it is that we learn to steer between the two poles of our worldview -- order and randomness, supervision and surprise, map and terrain, science and our everyday lives."

But he also indulges in a whole series of annoying sci-writer clichés during his crusade to prove that the "epoch of the I is drawing to a close." One is an obsession with paradox. Given that much of contemporary science traffics in little else, a certain procedural devotion to these noisome little bastards should be expected. But Norretranders -- whose style is already scattershot and aphoristic -- is a paradox monger. My personal favorite: "As only the conscious is conscious, and consciousness has to be the result of cerebral mechanisms so boring that we are unconscious of them, consciousness can ever be in charge." Or: "What we experience is a lie, for we experience it as if we experienced it before we experienced it."

Worse by far, however, is his tendency to rely on the language of formalism -- a rather tight-assed confederate of mighty consciousness -- to describe as "beautiful," "elegant" or "sublime" almost every momentous scientific discovery or vital equation. He also thinks Manhattan is an example of a linear civilization -- which means he probably hasn't ever abandoned himself to the subliminal subversion of the West Village, where you can find 4th Street intersecting with 13th Street.

Norretranders, of course, would dismiss such skepticism as further evidence that "consciousness is depth experienced as surface," and he would have some extremely provocative science on his side. At the very least, he has produced a lively story about the extreme frontiers of research in many different fields. He may have locked himself in a potentially disastrous bind -- asserting that consciousness is no big deal while producing a hefty tome that showcases his supreme control over his own knowledge. He extricates himself skillfully from this awkward position, however, so of one aspect of Norretrander's personal "I" we can be sure: this is a science writer whose enthusiasm for his work is happy to displace his meager consciousness.

By Matthew DeBord

Matthew DeBord is a contributing editor at Feed.

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