Tribal

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Gaining perspective on the daily doomscroll  

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Circa 1415. This is when Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi is said to have invented (devised, rediscovered) the art of representing three dimensional perspective in two dimensions. Not only did his ‘vanishing point’ method revolutionise art and design it highlighted the act of viewing. 3D representation reminded us that scenes are seen by a viewer, from a point of view. First person shooters owe a debt of gratitude, however small, to Brunelleschi’s genius.

His perspective trick is now a given. Yet, banal though it is in paintings and video games, perspective remains a ‘tricky’ thing to maintain in our daily lives. Indeed, tuning into friends, colleagues, pundits and politicians, what we so often find is a distinct lack of perspective. Though this phenomenon is not new, the ongoing pandemic drama has – from my perspective at least – amplified it, as if the threat of pestilence has prompted us to zoom our individual and collective focus even further in.

To a degree this is predictable. Understandable. We are wired to privilege threat signals. A retraction to the immediate, to me first, makes sense when the perceived threat is existential. The desperately hungry will think primarily of food and care somewhat less about microchips in vaccines.

However, in a 5G, VR, AI era of 24/7 (dis)connectivity, perhaps it would serve us better to zoom out – because, as I listen politely to the apparent insights of the self-appointed vanguard of the new whatever, I am struck by the sheer force of their freely shared and freshly awakened self-centrism and myopia.

All of which prompts me to be wary of my own short term, self-hyping tendencies. I am not innocent of indulging drama and/or proclaiming superior wisdom. (I mean, I’m doing it now, aren’t I? Crapping on about perspective as if I was the go-to guy.)

At this point I like to wave a couple of self-correcting red flags:

  • I do not know everything
  • My experience is not necessarily yours

Not only do I never have all the relevant data at hand – nor understand much of the precise, technical implications of said data – but my perspective on life, love and lockdown is clearly not the only admissible take on these things. My perspective is just that: mine. Limited, idiosyncratic, and prone to the same cognitive and psychological distortions as anyone else’s.  

For me, there is no greater argument for zooming out than my own patterns and limitations. The rewards of the helicopter view are authored in the bubble of mirrors. (More on this later.)

Intellectually, this is a no-brainer. This too shall pass, bigger pictures, long games, etcetera. We all know this stuff. Likewise, many of us understand that news is drama, politics is theatre, and this week’s apocalypse almost certainly won’t happen. Moreover, when those of us living in historically privileged circumstances take five seconds to consider our remarkable good fortune, it is clear that for all our clickbait conspiracy and declinist dread we could be a whole lot worse off. When was the last time your city was overrun by gun-toting religious fanatics? How long since hired goons kicked in your door and dragged daddy off to nearest available death camp?

  • This is not to say that genuine suffering, injustice and misfortune do not exist in the First World. Of course they do. Poverty sleeps in our streets, violence lives in our homes, failure and body shame slink in the shadow of our airbrushed meritocracy. However, much as we do not live in a utopia, neither do we endure the Orwellian crush beloved of dystopian fantasists or teeter perilously on the cliff of total collapse. Nor is COVID about to drive us to the edge of extinction.

However, simply saying ‘things could be worse’ or ‘think of the starving children’ is not all that helpful. Poorly thought through though narrow-focus perspectives seem, it is worth remembering that we are not especially rational creatures. While we are capable of rational dispassion and cool consideration, they require conscious effort. Cognitively, this is a big ask. Emotion, assumption, catch-all explanations, simple cause/effect formulas, and extrapolating supposedly universal truths from the sliver of our own experience is far easier. We all do it, and most of us do so more often than we care to believe.

Given that we all comprehend self and world from the perspective of one life span, with minimal direct experience of the other, and mostly within the frame of a single dominant culture, it is perhaps no surprise that we tend towards a zoomed in, snapshot understanding. Indeed, we could argue that self-centric, narrowly presentist worldviews are the mean to which we all likely revert – at which point we might wonder if this is such a bad thing.

Maybe if our circumscribed perceptions did not feed into countless slippery slope, end of everything narratives or appear to legitimise the conflations of conspiracy drama and the tribalised assertions of ideology and identity polemic our skinny perspective norms would be less problematic.

That all of this is happening at the most crowded, destructively armed, algorithmically siloed moment in our species’ history simply adds tinder to the box.    

Then again, if fortress thinking, encroaching tyranny, and a paralysing fear of disease work for you…please, don’t let me dissuade you from relishing the downhill rush of upcoming doom. After all, what righteous delight you will experience when you finally get to say I told you so.

Jokes aside, when we operate from a perspective mired in trending outrage and tethered to narrowly defined, near term self-interest, we do ourselves a disservice. In fact, it is not truly in our best interest to be zoomed in too tightly. It restricts our vision, and this damages us at both a personal and societal level. Quite how historical amnesia, hyperbolic drama and New World Order nightmares improve our quality of life, let alone create a sensible framework for navigating the world we share, is hard to imagine.        

  • For more on the often vexed issue of self-interest, see Us vs Us elsewhere on this site.

But again, obvious. So why bring it up? And why now?

Broadly speaking, the advent of the virus has catalysed (and to some extent weaponised) a ‘crisis zeitgeist’ that has fanned out across political and cultural divides and infected everything from personal to geo-strategic relations. News and social media are awash with breathless angst and ideological temper tantrums. War talk abounds. Our enemy is invisible. The unvaccinated are traitors. Lockdowns are a gateway to a global elite takeover. The tenor of our public and private response to COVID betrays a rush to judgement and innumerate panic that speaks to a truly pandemic loss of perspective.        

Closer to home and, I confess, my reserves of polite patience with the numerous boors and bullies seeking to sway me with their scaremongering or sign me up to their jihad have finally run out. So too am I over the constant ‘get tested’ reminders and ‘I’m vaccinated’ virtue signals.         

  • To be frank, I don’t especially care if you are vaccinated. I will neither applaud nor condemn you for your choice in this regard. Why? Because, when I zoom out from the righteous drama, what seems clear is that despite residual hesitancy and the various ‘toxic secret sauce’ tropes of the anti-vax crowd, the take-up of COVID vaccines will most likely be well north of 75%1 in countries where supply, capacity and finance allow2, and together with the emerging naturally acquired immune resistance of the 98% of sufferers who do not die, the strong probability is that I and those I care about will survive the pandemic. Taking an even longer view, vaccines and other fixes will either work or fail to a certain degree. What’s more, both the virus and our medical response to it will continue to evolve, although millions of us will still die with Sars CoV-2 – as we will in situations of famine, poverty and conflict. Beyond that, I and those I care about will all die at some point, with or without the plague and regardless of your vaccine status. The point here is less about judging the jab and more about how far from the stage you sit. From a certain distance, the heat of clear and present danger and the urgency of moral theatre cool to banality and futility. I say this not to champion arctic disregard and blithe fatalism but to suggest that we all have the ability to step back from the ruckus of here/now, me/mine and, in doing so, find a clearer line of sight. From this point of view we can better put the rolling newsfeed of fear, death and insult into its proper perspective.                      

However, for all my bleating – and bewilderment at the increasing militancy and ‘end of days’ talk of those around me – what I am left with is my own lens. Where do I put my attention? What are my patterns of belief and response, and how do they affect me?

Much as I might zoom out from the daily pandemic news, I also remember to pull back from the churn of self-chatter. I remind myself to resist the lure of easy certainty and the righteous buzz of blanket condemnation. If ever I think the world has gone mad and most people are idiots – which…okay, I have entertained – I remind myself we all are social mammals, hardwired to pursue certain objectives and to sift, sort and access data in ways shaped by a raft of unconscious mechanisms. I recall too that I operate within the same parameters. When I find myself believing I am the exception, I zoom out to find that I am not.

In turn, I have learnt to employ the same perspective trick with belief; especially where I believe it to be fact. Viewed from a point divorced from drama and self-serving bias, beliefs are more loosely held, dissolving in the face of incomplete data and other uncertainties.

Therefore, given that I am highly unlikely to have access to the final and complete truth, (if there is such a thing), and that I will always be working with partial and cognitively skewed data, (and that the data itself is constantly updating), why would I choose to believe that COVID is the end of democracy? Or indeed subscribe to any of the currently circulating forecasts of doom and dystopia? Do I really want to tie myself to poison world paranoia or lock myself down to avoid coronaviral destruction? Am I to look sideways at my fellow human beings and regard them as a pestilential menace? Must I shrink aghast at the creep of tyranny and rail anew at sleep of sheeple every day? Is this the only topic of conversation?  

In the midst of a pandemic – and in a city3 of six lockdowns totalling more than 210 days thus far – it would be easy to drift towards ever more strident and frustrated perspectives. There is an amplified sense of crisis in the air, and an understandable heating up of collective cabin fever. All the more reason to pause…breathe…lift our eyes…and look beyond the four walls of the latest update; if only not to drive ourselves crazy and bore the arse of everyone we know with another cut/copy rant.

Speaking of which; scusate, Fiilippo. <Ends here>

1: My sense is that the perceived threat and constant presence of COVID, in tandem with our innate survivalist preference for ‘safety first’ settings will be more than enough to overwhelm residual concerns about the risks associated with the various vaccines. Ultimately, given a choice between the much-touted and apparently noble cause of freedom and the tangible benefits of safety, most of us will opt for the latter, even if we pretend otherwise.  

2: To what extent the response to COVID is truly species-wide remains to be seen; but history tends to suggest that the poor will be left to suffer alone, and that nativist concern will trump the broader shared interest. Much as I would like to see effective COVID mitigation rolled out across the ‘global south’ in a timely fashion there is little scope for rational optimism on this front. The more likely scenario is that the virus will reservoir, mutate and spread in communities with poor or non-existent healthcare options, and where the barriers of class, cultural practice and other prejudices work to stymie both preventive and curative measures. Our record further suggests that we will leave this to fester until such time as an emergency response is triggered and the celebrity-fronted, NGO, donor nation juggernaut rolls into town and the tragedy unfolds on our screens as yet more news drama and ideological point scoring. Much of which we might avoid if we zoomed out from domestic politics and executive bonuses.                  

3: Melbourne, Australia.

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