“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you weren’t able to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference from the real world and the dream world?” — Morpheus (paraphrase of Chinese Philosopher Zhuangzi)
In The Matrix humans live inside a computer generated simulation that hides the truth of the “real” world underneath. Neo is asked whether he wants to take the blue pill and remain in the simulation or take the red and finally see the world as it actually is.
Funnily enough, we all live inside a real life simulation of another kind. No, it wasn’t thrust upon us by a sci-fi alien race. Instead, we built it ourselves. It’s our culture.
Most people never notice that they live within this culture simulation. They don’t realise that most of the things we believe and most of the ways we act were already predetermined for us. Most people think they chose their career. They think they came upon their political beliefs after hours of conscious deliberation.
Poppycock! These are just the stories we tell ourselves to give us some semblance of the feeling that we’re in control. In fact, our cultural reality shapes our lives down to the tiniest detail without us even realising it.
But, maybe, it is possible to wrestle back some control! How you ask? Through a skill I’m calling The Outside View. It is the ability to realise the existence of this giant cultural simulation that we all live within and start to question whether things could be different.
This shift gives us just a little bit more freedom, and just a little bit more power to act differently. While this might not seem like much, I really believe this is just what the world needs.
Fancy joining me and taking that red pill?
Maybe you don’t believe me? “Come on Julyan, I chose who I am”, you say. “It wasn’t all determined for me. What are you chatting about?”
Seems like you’re missing the outside view! Looks like I’m going to have to give you some examples.
So let’s take a concept like beauty.
Our society tells us that this is beautiful:
But the Kayan tribe in North Arizona think this is beauty:
Who’s right? No-one! It’s just depends which culture you were born into.
Makes you think that beauty is a whole lot more arbitrary than you thought, right?
This is why anthropology (i.e. the study of other cultures) is so important. It allows us to see how differently other people have lived and thus how arbitrary our own way of life is.
When you start using the Outside View everything you once thought was solid starts to break down. You realise that the way our economy works, how we interact with each other and many of the social institutions of our era are just arbitrary. You begin to see through our collective stories and see them for what they really are: fictions.
You might think you live in London, England. But that too is just a human invention. Another story. England doesn’t actually exist. It’s only a bit of land.
You might think it’s normal to go to the supermarket, swipe a bit of plastic and walk away with fruit and veg from all over the world. Well no! In the grand scheme of human history that’s fucking mental. Pieces of paper and plastic have value in our society. Can you believe it!
So hopefully I’ve convinced you that we can take the outside view and see the simulation we live in. But where does that get us? What’s the point?
It’s quite easy to fall into a trap of thinking that our culture is ‘modern’, advanced and superior to what came before. But maybe things aren’t quite what they seem….
In fact, key parts of our present cultural simulation happen to be destroying the planet. They also happen to be propagating gross inequalities and deepening widespread social alienation. That’s the point!
We need to take the outside view to look down on our present situation and ask what we can change to solve these big challenges? And what already works that we need to protect at all costs.
We need to look down on our lives on planet earth like an anthropologist from Mars. And then get redesigning our way of life!
Let’s take an example. For the last century or so advertising and the media have been instilling in us a particular idea of success. We’re told again and again that the goal of our lives should be to be “successful”. And that means getting ahead as an individual. Getting a promotion faster than your colleagues. Getting the best school places for your kids. Or getting enough money to buy your dream house in the country.
On the one hand, this cultural meme has pushed people towards starting new businesses and developing world changing technologies. But on the other, it leads us to operate purely as individuals ignoring the collective plight of our communities and species as a whole.
Now we realise the matrix we live in — how about we build a new one? Why not have a culture that’s about contribution rather than getting ahead? Where success isn’t measured by how much money you have but instead by how much you’ve contributed to humanity as a whole. Similarly, success could be about having deep spiritual connections with other people, the natural world or even existence itself. Wouldn’t that make our society a whole lot better?
People who are able to take this outside view end up making the biggest contributions to humanity. Like the suffragettes, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Did they accept the societies they were born into? No. They worked to build better ones. Why not join them? We can’t completely escape our culture but we can imagine new possibilities, differing realities and radical ways of being. This is the beauty of the outside view.
But Julyan you say! If all we have to do to change the world is to take the outside view and realise how arbitrary out current simulation is, then why hasn’t anything changed yet?
If only it were that easy. Unfortunately there are many forces in today’s society that conspire to prevent the outside view from ever being fully realised.
It starts very young with our education system. One way to look at schools is as places where naturally curious, artistic and weird kids are sent to force them to cohere to the culture of the adult world. What did you learn in school? “Facts”? What they mean by facts are the things that our culture has found to be correct. Some of these facts are helpful and do of course work. Maths helps you build bridges. But we’re never taught the ability to question that knowledge or the culture that produced it.
Peer pressure in schools also forces children into the cultural mould. For example many feminist writers have discussed how societies gender norms are imprinted in the playground. By the end of school most kids have come to accept the cultural norms of our era. Instead, we need an education system where the outside view is at the heart of the curriculum. Where questioning, curiosity and difference are celebrated above all else.
But even in the adult world everything conspires against the outside view. Take media as an example. Pretty much all the media we consume on a daily basis closes down the outside view. If you look through a newspaper or a news website like the BBC I bet you can’t find one sentence that challenges the cultural realities of our time. Why not? Because they need to appeal to a load of people who are stuck in the simulation. They wouldn’t sell many newspapers if they rocked the boat. So for the outside view to flourish we need whole new forms of media. The Correspondent looks like an interesting project in this space.
Our culture also provides us with many distractions to stop us from ever taking the outside view. Alcohol (and other drugs) numb us to the pain in our lives and in the world around us. Football teams make us feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves. Social media is not only crazily addictive but limits us to a small echo chamber of opinions and ideas. Even psychotherapy, as well as many forms of spirituality, make us think that our challenges are individual and must be overcome alone. Instead, they are often the results of the collective failings of our culture that we must work together to overcome. Enlightenment is a group activity folks!
Even politics itself has become a distraction from the outside view. It’s easy to spend all day arguing which person we want to be elected without realising that neither party really challenges the cultural realities of our time. We need to escape these distractions so we can really start confronting the crisis of our era!
Wow that’s a lot of things holding back the outside view! And they’re just the tip of the iceberg. With all these forces opposing the outside view you must be wondering if it has any hope at all?
Well it’s certainly going to be an uphill battle. But what keeps me optimistic is that in many areas of life, if you look closely enough, you’ll find groups of people who are beginning to challenge the assumptions of our simulation. People are making schools centered around curiosity. Scientists are creating new methodologies to capture the fact their work is always done within a simulation. New media is emerging that supports the outside view rather than suppresses it. Spiritual movements are developing that are not just based on individual purification but on collective transformation. Whatever field you work in. Whatever career path you’re on. You can seek out these groups that embrace the outside view and make yourself a positive part of a better future. Let’s do it!