The above image was tweeted in April 2019. It shows the difference between the way those with astigmatism see the world vs those who don’t.
It went viral. With thousands of people in disbelief that they could be seeing the world so differently from those around them.
(Astigmatism is an imperfection in the curvature of your eye’s cornea or lens that can cause blurry vision)
We think those around us see the world the same way we do and yet there are others who view the very structure of light differently from the way you do.
If this is the case, just how different are the perceptions of those around you to your own?
People walking past you in the street. People sitting opposite you in the coffee place. People in their cars. What’s going through their heads? How do they see the world? Do they have similar perceptions to yours? Or are they living in an entirely different reality to your own?
The main factor in how somebody perceives the world is what they pay attention to.
But before I explain how the algorithms are changing your perception of reality, you need to understand the Reticular Activating System (RAS).
And you need to understand the Invisible Gorilla.
The Reticular Activating System, the human eye and the invisible gorilla
In this now world famous experiment, a video of 6 students passing basketballs to each other was shown to volunteers. One team wearing white shirts, the other wearing black shirts.
Volunteers were asked to count the number of passes between the students in white shirts while ignoring any passes from those in the black shirts.
Many volunteers guessed the correct number of passes, 34. What many of them didn’t see however was the student wearing a full-body gorilla suit that walked right into the centre of the frame, looked at the camera, pounded their chest and then slowly walked off camera.
If you’ve never seen this world famous experiment I urge you to take a look now:
Volunteers were then asked some follow up questions:
Q: Did you see anything unusual while watching the video?
Q: Did you notice anything other than the players?
A: Well, there were some elevators and some S’s painted on the wall. I don’t know what the S’s were there for.
Q: Did you notice anyone other than the players?
Q: Did you notice a Gorilla?
A: A what?!
Unbelievably, around 50% of the volunteers failed to see the Gorilla right in the middle of the screen pounding it’s chest.
This experiment has been replicated over and over again. In multiple countries under varying conditions. Yet the results are always the same; Half of the participants fail to see the gorilla.
One of the most interesting things about this experiment was the reaction of the participants. They were completely shocked. Some spontaneously shouted “No way!” or “I missed that?!”. Others accused the experimenters of lying or switching the tapes for the 2nd viewing.
How could people fail to see something right in front of their eyes? Because their RAS (Reticular Activating System) was focused on the task of counting passes and wasn’t looking for a gorilla.
(What does this have to do with how algorithms are changing your perception of reality? Bare with me, I’m getting there)
The RAS is a bundle of nerves near the bottom of our brainstem that acts as a filter for information. It decides what information gets in and what doesn’t.
It takes what you decide to focus on and creates a filter for it. Of course, it’s an entirely subconscious mechanism. Which means you have no idea that it’s happening.
You’ve experienced the RAS in action before.
When you’re in a crowded room full of people talking and you hear someone mention your name from across the room.
Out of the hundreds of things being said in the room, your RAS filters through the information and feeds you that which is relevant to you.
Or perhaps you decide to buy yourself a new car. A Toyota, for example. Suddenly you may start noticing other Toyotas everywhere you go. Where did all these Toyotas come from suddenly? Did this brand suddenly get incredibly popular?
The Toyotas were there all along. You just never noticed them before. The Toyota is the invisible gorilla you couldn’t see before because you weren’t focused on it.
Your RAS simply started to focus on them because this information became relevant to you.
What determines which information your RAS lets in? Your past experiences. Your goals. And your world-view.
This means that everybody around you is focusing on different things than what you’re focusing on. Their RAS is filtering through different information.
The people around you aren’t seeing the world the same way as you because their attention is focused on different things.
Your RAS will filter information through to you that you expect to see based on your world-view.
If you believe the world is a dark and cruel place, you’ll notice all of the negative things around you. The beggars on the street. The rats in the gutter. The miserable expressions of the people on the crowded train.
If you believe the world is a happy and cheerful place, you’ll notice all of the positive things around you. The children playing. The people laughing happily in the bar. The sun on your face.
Your world-view determines what you see.
(And what strongly influences your world view? Algorithms on the internet. But more on that later).
The human eye has a singular focus.
It works just like a camera lens (The camera lens, of course, was modelled after the human eye).
Hold your hand out in front of your face and focus on it. Now, while continuing to stare at your hand, try to notice everything behind your hand.
Don’t look around the room. Keep staring at your hand. But notice everything that lies behind your hand.
You’ll see that everything behind your hand is blurry and out of focus.
"Most of our vision is peripheral and low resolution. We save the forvea for things of importance. We point our high-resolution capacities at the few specific things we're aiming at. And we let everything else - which is almost everything - fade, unnoticed, into the background." (…) "Seeing is very difficult, so you must choose what to see, and let the rest go - Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules For Life
You think you see the world as it is but actually your focus is extremely narrow.
The question is: What are you focusing on? And what is fading into the background unnoticed? What are your invisible gorillas?
Are you the feminist who notices the “man-spreading” on the train but fails to notice the 4 homeless men they saw on the way to the train station?
Are you the businessman who thinks capitalism is fantastic but fails to notice the suffering it causes all around them?
Are you the guy who believes that America are the “good guys” while failing to notice unnecessary wars created around the world by America?
Your world-view determines which aspects of the world are in-focus and which are left out of focused in the background.
So your world-view determines what you see. But what shapes your world-view? Where do you get most of your information about the world? The media.
The media you consume influences what you focus on.
How algorithms are changing your perception of reality
Without the media, we would all be focused on the things that are immediately around us. Focused on your goals. Your friends. Your family. Your town or village. Everyone you know would have a similar perspective of the world to yourself.
This is how our ancestors lived.
But we live in the information age. And because of the media (The internet in particular) people are beginning to have wildly different perspectives of the world around them.
More importantly, each of us live inside digital filter bubbles created by algorithms. Because Google and Facebook personalises what we see using algorithms (In an effort to maximise engagement with their platform), the information you see online is generally information you agree with.
The algorithms are shaping the information you see and therefore are shaping what you notice in the world.
Your main source of information is not letting certain pieces of information through. This separates society into digital groups. Right-wing and Left-wing. Feminism and The Red Pill. Millennial and Baby Boomers. Men and women. (Yes. The internet is separating the sexes into digital groups).
These digital filter bubbles are invisible. How would you know if your Google search results were different from someone else’s? How often do you consider the information you’re not seeing on your Facebook news feed?
The algorithms controlling the filter bubbles aren’t even available to the public.
Each of these filter bubbles has it’s own zeitgeist.
This is the reason for the sudden political polarisation across the world between 2012-2019. America. UK. Brazil. France. Germany. How could these countries on difference sides of the globe experience political polarisation across the world at exactly the same time?
Well what connects these countries together? The internet. Google and Facebook.
Most people believe the internet is giving them information in a neutral way when in fact this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The information in their digital filter bubbles shapes their world-view. Then they go out into the world and their RAS pays attention to things that confirm the world-view that was created largely by consuming content inside their digital filter bubble.
It goes like this:
An individual with right-wing political beliefs spends a year on the internet. Searching on various terms Google and following different Facebook groups that they’re interested in
The algorithms on Google, Facebook and Youtube (Youtube is owned by Google) feed them content they’re the most likely to click. Which is content that confirms their right-ring political beliefs to be accurate.
They consume countless hours of content discussing the negative aspects of mass immigration.
They head out into the world and their RAS focuses on any occasion they see someone from another country conducting any sort of negative behaviour (Fighting, being rude, littering, spiting) because this confirms their current world view (Again, this world-view was largely created by the digital filter bubble they’re in)
Their RAS will also tend to filter out any occasions when they come across an immigrant who is indulging in a positive behaviour as this does not confirm their world view.
Now they’re only paying attention to things that confirm the world view that was created by the algorithms of Google and Facebook. Therefore, algorithms are changing their perception of reality.
And as you’re reading this on the internet, the same is likely true for you.
The exact same effect is present on those with left-wing political beliefs. Or any other kind of beliefs. In fact, the same effect will occur on anyone who spends a large amount of time on the internet. The more time you spend on the internet, the more this effect will impact your psychology.
As you walk through the world, what do pay attention to? Which information from the world is in focus and which is left unnoticed by your RAS?
What are your invisible gorillas?
And how much of what you’re seeing in the world around you is being determined by algorithms on the internet?