Can You Hear Me Now?

The fundamental question of life, the universe and everything is the one popularized by the Verizon guy in the ad: Can you hear me now?

This conclusion grew out of a conversation I had about a year ago, with some friends, in which I proposed a modest-little philosophy I dubbed divergentism. Here is a picture.

divergentism

Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else.

If you are a divergentist, you believe that as you age, the average answer to the fundamental Verizon question slowly drifts, as you age, from yes, to no, to silenceIf you’re unlucky, you’re a hedgehog and get unhappier and unhappier about this as you age. If you are lucky, you’re a fox and you increasingly make your peace with this condition. If you’re really lucky, you die too early to notice the slowly descending silence, before it even becomes necessary to Google the phrase existential horror.

To me, this seemed like a completely obvious idea. Much to my delight, most people I ran it by immediately hated it.

Most people are convergentists by default. They believe that if reasonable people share an increasing number of explicit beliefs, they must necessarily converge to similar conclusions about most things. A more romantic version rests on the notion of continuously deepening relationships based on unspoken bonds between people. Bonds that allow them to finish each other’s Medium posts, and enjoy companionable soul-meld silences.

Convergentism is the basis of all politics. Liberal politics exhibits convergentist thinking particularly strongly. This is partly why liberals attempt to bridge political divides by earnestly trying to increase the raw quantity of shared priors, sincerely believing that every new shared belief (based in Science! preferably) brings people closer together. Conservative politics is convergentist too, but via pre-emptive silencing of no, I cannot hear you links, and energetic attempts to turn shallow verbalized bonds into deeper unspoken bonds that are always on, always at yes.

There is an obvious relationship here to hedgehogs and foxes. Convergentism is the natural social state of the hedgehog, divergentism the unnatural, but preferred social state of the fox.

In a way, divergentism is the claim that everybody is born a hedgehog, in a web of reassuring yes, I hear you signals, but in the long run, must turn into a fox to preserve their sanity in the growing silence.

Fortunately for hedgehogs, in the long run, everybody is dead.

The Expanding Social Universe

The picture above is a visualization of a society evolving in a divergentist way (on average). There may be small, local convergence epochs (especially when population grows faster than knowledge; a sort of knowledge-Malthusian condition), but the overall picture is one of divergence. It’s an expanding universe of thought, just like the physical one we inhabit.

Here’s what’s happening in the picture.

Imagine a large population of people living, seeing, learning, doing and generally going about their lives. As they do so, they accumulate beliefs. Depending on how smart they are, they also compress beliefs via abstraction, metaphor, subconscious pattern-recognition circuits, muscle memory, ritual, making and consuming art, going p-value fishing, exploring tantric sex, generating irreproducible peer-reviewed Science! and so on.

Some small fraction of this growing mass of beliefs can fuel communication attempts of some sort.

When two people attempt to hear  each other, all communication rests on, and builds on, this shared set. If they mostly get to mutual yes, I hear you now conclusionscommunication (of any sort, including non-verbal) creates an attractive force between them, and a repulsive force otherwise.

But that’s not all there is. There is the gradually snowballing momentum of everything that is not available as fodder for communication, all the unsocialized and incommunicable private dark matter of accumulating lived experience. If this is sufficiently high, the two will drift apart, cognitively speaking, even if their communication is a net yes, I hear you (and you hear me). And as they drift apart, communication will become harder, and slowly flip to a net no, I can’t hear you. In the picture, these are the snapping and missing links on the right, in the diverged later stage of the network of yeses on the left.

The noes eventually give way to silence. You can’t even get through enough to get to a no. 

The reverse is also possible but statistically less likely: people can be drawn together, even if the ongoing communication results in a net repulsion force of no. This eventually turns into yes once the convergence proceeds beyond a point. A lot of romantic fiction is based on this dynamic.

Divergentism is the assertion that as time goes on, you are in a net no or silent relationship with an increasing fraction of humanity. Imperceptibly, silence descends on you. At least if you keep seeing, learning, doing and thinking. Or growing, for short. Actually, even a single self dissolves into a silence of diverging foxy homunculi yelping forlornly at each other in an expanding mind (proof: in Kung-Fu Panda, the wise teacher dissolves into a flurry of orange, dead autumn leaves: these are really tiny, dry fox carcasses), but let’s set that aside

Growing people necessarily grow apart. From each other, and even themselves.

You can extend this idea to dead people and received traditions too. As you grow older, fewer and fewer books by dead people will retain their initial ability to speak to you. If you are a voracious reader, you might still find a book at age 85 that cuts through the growing silence and speaks to you, but if you take your longevity pills and keep growing to 115 say, that book too, will lose its power to speak to you (of course, books by dead people can’t really hear you, so it’s a weak one-way street to begin with).

Convergence and Meaning

I’ve never really spent much time thinking about meaning, as in “I need to do something meaningful with my life, it feels empty. I need purpose.”

Meaning in that sense has never been a particularly high priority for me.  I know this because some trivial thing can usually distract me when I ponder it for more than a minute. It’s not an aversion — it is simply not much of an attractor. I suspect people look more urgently for meaning when they find it harder to distract themselves from awareness of its absence.

This past year, as luck would have it, I’ve had a lot of interactions with people to whom meaning seems to matter a great deal. People for whom the search for meaning is always a very urgent existential matter, rather than an occasional sudoku-like diversion.

Most of these people are hedgehogs and convergentists, though not all.

I’ve learned two things from these conversations.

First, they don’t seem to mean the same thing I do when I think about meaning. To convergentists, the absence of meaning (always easier to notice than meaning itself), seems to correspond to the material notion of silence rather than some metaphysical notion of nihilism. For less evolved convergentists, who are as easily traumatized by dissent as by indifference, even a condition of more noes than yeses to can you hear me now? is sufficient to create a feeling of absent meaning.

Second, to convergentists, meaning and value are the same thing. For a thing to have meaning is for that thing to have value and vice versa. It must have a place in a narrativized universe in which there is no room for non sequiturs, or true surprisal. This value can only be socially situated. Things that might potentially be valued without being socially situated are, almost by definition, excluded from contributing to meaning. For the extreme convergentist, even the simplest solitary pleasures, such as enjoying a good coconut on a desert island, are legally inadmissible in the court of meaning-of-life construction.

So I speculate that to convergentists, meaning is fundamentally a social thing: not only is all shared ideology about meaning, all meaning is about shared ideology. Absence of meaning is silence in the practical and social sense of a pervasive non-response to the can you hear me now question. You yell your truths louder and louder at the universe, but get no response.

“I need to do something meaningful with my life, it feels empty. I need purpose” is simply another way of saying, can you hear me now?

To a convergentist, to first order, life is meaningful if the answer to can you hear me now is mostly yes rather than mostly no, or worse, a deafening silence. This, incidentally, has almost nothing to do with whether or not the communication conveys any information. In fact, other things being equal, a yes, I hear you unburdened with new information is often preferred to one that contains some capacity to surprise. Confirmation bias is not a minor bug in our attempts to learn and grow, it is a feature in our attempts to create and stabilize meaning in the face of the ever-present entropic allure of divergence.

To a divergentist, this is a bizarre position that requires an increasing amount of alcohol (or suitable substitute addictions) over time to maintain. Neither silence, nor a chorus of yeses, is necessary or sufficient for meaning. The possibility of meaning is mostly an undecidable. But the growing silence is an undeniable reality.

Fortunately, for a divergentist, the possibility of value rests not on the possibility of meaning, but on the continual (but never decisive) subversion of the possibility.

Such subversion of meaning can happen across far greater distances in thought space than affirmation of meaning.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. > This value can only be socially situated. Things that might potentially be valued without being socially situated are, almost by definition, excluded from contributing to meaning. For the extreme convergentist, even the simplest solitary pleasures, such as enjoying a good coconut on a desert island, are legally inadmissible in the court of meaning-of-life construction.

    By this do you mean the “pics or it didn’t happen” phenomenon?

  2. Yes, I can most definitely hear you. And Vonnegut – God rest his soul – would too, I imagine.

    And FaceBook behaviour suddenly takes on a new dimension

  3. will the universe eventually fade?
    is matter eternal, or will protons, electrons decay? if so, into what?
    does consciousness transcend physical death?
    does pink floyd’s ‘eclipse’ capture this?

  4. ( Oh, Venkat still blogs on ribbonfarm! )

    The mind expands like the universe, but the body does not ( yet ). That’s why Nietzsche wasn’t consistently nihilist but he inverted meaning and value instead: meaning of life became meaning for life. The accidental bodily existence became more important than the good causes, the abstract ideas, the religious feelings, the historical narratives and so on. The physical needs are everything which is required to balance the pleasures and horrors of the expanding mind. We will continue to hear each other quite literally even though we might not understand each other. Living in the “barbarian forest” naturally turns everyone into a barbarian for everyone else.

    I really do like the medievalism of rooting ethics and sociology in cosmology. A world which is pretty small, centered around the earth and old in the sense that its end is close, will create a different set of prejudices about the right way to live than one which is vast, has a long natural history, expands and dies in billions of years by cooling down. The mind tries hard to locate itself and life in it and fades to believe that the universe is an experiment to keep human morality high in the eye of God; at the same time it realizes that it is young and inexperienced, that holding someone back from learning-to-know-the-universe is like preventing a child from growing.

    • I am still retooling my writing interests. Possibly the retooling will never end and all my future writing here will be weird experimental pieces, which is why I need more consistent people also blogging here :D

      Nietzsche is weird. I gave up halfway through Zarathustra and never tried anything else. Too much of it was stuff I’d discovered for myself but transposed into unhelpfully different terms, and the new stuff was both too infrequent and untrustworthy for me to use.

      I think this has been true for me for many thinkers who are as messy as me, and interested in the same things. Can’t use them, so I have to painfully reinvent the wheel my own way, and possibly make big mistakes they avoided.

      And heh, didn’t strike me until you pointed it out that rooting ethics and sociology in cosmology is a rather medieval thing to do. It’s like the industrial revolution, despite giving us practical access to the cosmos, made us lose philosophical interest in it. So we ended up with rather small-minded frames of reference for our self interest.

  5. Venkat,

    The conflation of meaning and value, the blind eye to non-sequiturs and nihilist possibilities, the hunt for shared ideology, you’ve neatly captured the majority of modern American societal engineering.

    One possibility for steady-state existence up until death is to lock arms with like minded others, skydiver-style, and stare into eachothers’ eyes shouting “I hear you! We hear each other! We will always be together!!” all the way to the ground.

    To my mind, this is what major media seeks to do, to pull together disparate positions (guns, immigration, welfare, etc) into a network of arm-linked skydivers, who have an internally-consistent-ish set of pre-populated beliefs about how new possibilities should be handled (which is that they should be ignored or decried as heretical).

    Fox News and CNN are currently the two most successful and well-marketed skydiver formations.

    The big downside of course is that it’s a lot harder to do any kind of enjoyable backflips or sightseeing when your arms are locked with all those hedgehogs.

  6. Marc Hamann says:

    I came to your writing through the Gervais Principle years ago, and I still think it is a strong metaphor for what you are talking about here. We could substitute “the loneliness of the Sociopath” for divergentism, and the comfy narratives of the Clueless and the Losers for convergentism. (Though I’m sure your identity as a fox means you hate having your different metaphors united…)

    Only gross simplifications of reality can make people see it in the same way, hence the social necessity of such narratives. But if you are committed to understand reality as it is, its very complexity and the limits of even the best human mind mean that you can never quite have identical understandings at the same time with even similar other seekers of reality.

  7. Thelonious says:

    Perhaps the most poignant example of the tragedy of convergentism is “The Great Gatsby.”

    Gatsby, naive young convergentist, staked his life on the possibility that Daisy would one day hear him again.

    Tom, brutal and clear-eyed divergentist, destroyed Gatsby’s dreams. Meanwhile, Daisy destroyed Myrtle… Leaving Wilson, unable to handle the silence, to destroy Gatsby.

    That’s the irony of Gatsby: one convergentist killed another. Instead of meeting up for a cup of tea and discussing their mutual convergent romanticism, Wilson & Gatsby had a bloody showdown.

    Yet Wilson’s silence, save for that one gunshot, only grew deeper. And perhaps that gunshot gave him tinnitus – meaning that no one, not even himself, can hear him now.

  8. God, this was such a thought-provoking piece. Raised questions I didn’t even realize were worth asking — always my favorite kind of thing to read.

    That said… WHOA. With all this divergence as a result of our idiosyncratic experience, how is *any* kind of communication possible? It doesn’t make sense to me that we must naturally and inevitably diverge as we grow and age. It seems, instead, that there will be some divergent forces and some convergent forces — and that it’s possible, at least in principle, for the convergent forces to swamp the divergent forces.

    Maybe I’ve missed the point here? But in case not, I’ll suggest at least two convergent forces. First is shared experiences. Every time a movie like Titanic (for example) sweeps over the planet, everyone’s signals get a little bit clearer, because everyone has experienced the same thing and can make reference to pieces of it as needed.

    Second, reality itself is a convergent force; it’s consilient. Even if you and I are working independently, the more we learn about reality, the better we’ll be able to communicate. Maybe another way to put it is that reality itself is a shared experience. Those prime numbers we’re beaming out into space are a kind of interplanetary “Can you hear me now?” exercise, are they not? Because we’re hoping that the aliens have done enough math and science (and that their math and science will be roughly equivalent to ours) to realize that large prime numbers are extremely rare in nature, and must be the product of some kind of intelligent life.

    • I’m not saying there are no convergent forces. I’m saying they’re net weaker than divergent forces. There is also a very strong bias towards believing in convergentism because evidence for convergentism is all very visible. Evidence for divergentism otoh mostly manifests as silence, loneliness, anomie, a sense of “I have no mouth but I must scream” etc. etc.

      To some people this is buried so deeply into their subconscious, and they compensate so aggressively with convergentism favoring activities that they never notice this (hence the deep trauma they suffer if they try to experiment with things like mindfulness meditation which can royally screw up people who have a poor idea of who they are).

      And overall, the phenomenon is a bit like material wellbeing: objective standards of living have been rising, but people experience relative deprivation because the rich get richer faster than the poor get richer, so the poor feels like their condition is going down overall. This is like that.

      Things like Wiio’s Law, existentialism etc. are weak attempts to grok the nature of the silence of divergentism.

  9. If you are a voracious reader, you might still find a book at age 85 that cuts through the growing silence and speaks to you, but if you take your longevity pills and keep growing to 115 say, that book too, will lose its power to speak to you (of course, books by dead people can’t really hear you, so it’s a weak one-way street to begin with).

    This feels like the opposite to my experience: I find that life experience tends to make previously incomprehensible things more comprehensible, and to provide new perspectives that can be used to re-interpret various writings in novel ways.

    Maybe the book example is a bad one, in that it’s about others communicating your beliefs to you, rather than you communicating your beliefs to others. As the number of nonshared beliefs increases, you need to communicate more of those in order to be heard by others. But better understanding of others is improved by the simultaneous accumulation of shared beliefs, since the more you know about the beliefs of others, the easier it becomes to understand what they might be saying.

  10. “Divergentism” in Baudrillard’s prose ( from ‘The pataphysics of the year 2000’ ):

    Once beyond this gravitational effect, which keeps bodies in orbit, all the atoms of meaning get lost in space. Each atom pursues its own trajectory to infinity and is lost in space. This is precisely what we are seeing in our present-day societies, intent as they are all accelerating bodies, messages and processes in all directions and which, with modern media have created for every event, story and image a simulation of an infinite trajectory. Every political, cultural fact possesses a kinetic energy which wrenches it from its own space and propels it into a hyperspace where, since it will never return, it loses all meaning.

    He continues to talk about social dark matter, the silent masses and their indifference and many other of his favorite topics, using his idiosyncratic style.

    His writings had some effect on me when I read it back in his days because, strangely, I think he described a beautiful world. Metaphysical melancholy as a source or joy.

  11. Thanks for writing this up Venkatesh. This is a really thought-provoking post. I’m no philosopher, but I too have been thinking about some of these same ideas for a couple of years now just based first-hand experiences with people. I tend to agree with everything you’ve put out there, but I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts that came up while I was reading through your ideas.

    1) Is it possible that rather than there being true divergence with only a small number of “local convergence epochs”, that “clusters of convergence with accompanying divergence” could actually make up the majority of the system’s architecture? There may be a theory out there that describes this phenomenon already, but I do think that people from different places or cultures do share more than surface level similarities like favorite movies, foods, etc. Perhaps people from the same country (or whatever similarity we are considering) are on the same, shared axis and diverge from there? This way, you’d likely have more in common, or converge in thought, with someone from the same place as you, but still have divergence in that there will always be things that separate us further (the silence you’re speaking of). Another way to think of this is from a nature perspective. Every tree in nature is different – just like in divergence – but trees still grow together in forests. To beat this horse further, forests are different on every continent, but forests from the same climate share similar traits. And there are a ton of forest clusters, not just a few.

    2) Are all units the same when we talk about growth? Let’s accept that the *number* of divergent thoughts is growing faster than the number of convergent ones for someone. But is the magnitude the same for each thought? I’d argue that unless your fundamental beliefs are being changed or challenged on a daily basis by what you’re learning in a divergent scenario, then there’s still a common root in thought that is shared with others. If, at the same time, you are having convergent experiences and thoughts too, it could be that those convergent experiences outpace the divergent ones in magnitude, which could shift the net. An extremely simplified example could be what you read. Say you read 1 philosophy book first and then 100 romance fiction books afterwards. Your friend reads the same philosophy book and then reads 100 mystery fiction books afterwards. Then you both read another philosophy book. I would assign the philosophy books a heavier weight than fiction (say philosophy = 10 units and fiction-anything = .01 units —> probably just a personal bias), and the end result of reading all of these books is convergence rather than divergence. You would have 2 units divergence from all the fiction books and 20 units convergence from the philosophy books for a net of 18 convergence. I would argue the need to assign different values of magnitude (albeit somewhat arbitrarily), because we are talking about ‘growth’ rather than just experiences. In this scenario, one of the easiest ways to create divergence is to embrace science or knowledge-based learning rather than just consuming random material.

    3) I am still trying to work through whether divergence is a fundamental truth or just an idea created by people. If it is indeed created by us, then we are affecting the outcome with the definition. Maybe it’s just that people who diverge *want* to diverge. Perhaps that’s what gives them meaning. The status quo could be convergence, and it’s possible that we have created this idea or need to diverge.

    4) Just to play devil’s advocate.. Divergence would have a maximum value (i.e. it couldn’t go on growing forever). It could not be always increasing or infinite, because it has to be based on what humans are capable of learning and storing. As such, that bound will appear from far away to be converging, because the capacity of a human brain looks huge from here on Earth, but pales in comparison to the computing power possible elsewhere. In addition, we don’t know what people are thinking when they’re silent or learning on their own. Just because we don’t know doesn’t automatically different. Our private thoughts and experiences are likely much more similar than any of us will ever know.

    • ** sp. Just because we don’t know doesn’t automatically make us different** – Told you I wasn’t a philosopher!

    • That’s a lot of questions :D

      I think for the refinements you’re considering, the model is a little too coarse and there’s a danger of map-territory confusions. I’d return to first principles on specific questions without reference to the divergence/convergence framework.

  12. As someone for whom the search for meaning is probably a more urgent existential matter than than an occasional sudoku-like diversion than you, my sense is that divergentism is increasing globally, yet meaning is also increasing locally.

    Looking at myself in relationship to society as a whole, there is much more silence or garbled transmission than a decade ago, but I have a stronger sense of meaning because I have converged with a small group.

    I used to read the NYT. Now I read Ribbonfarm.

    Even though there are many fewer Ribbonfarm readers than NYT readers, the experience of talking with someone who has read as much of ribbonfarm as I have provides much more meaning than talking with someone who also read the NYT. There is a deeper sense of shared experiences.

    It seems to me that meaning is only derived above a certain signal strength. So even though the net signal strength is decreasing, you get more four and five bar individuals as you grow older.

    Maybe it’s not a threshold and it’s just a power law distribution where five bar strength individuals provide 80% of the meaning so you can have a net decrease in signal strength and still a net increase in meaning if there are more five bar strength recipients.

    • I don’t know that it’s a signal strength. Going by the premise that “meaning” is created socially (as opposed to value), any context at all, shared over a sufficiently long time, creates meaning. See the xkcd Joe Biden sandwich cartoon for instance.

      I am not sure this kind of small-and-local meaning creation is an adequate substitute for the large-scale meaning factories of the past, like organized religion. It may be better than the decaying state of those large scale meanings today, but I don’t think any of us alive today can hope to experience the sort of meaning that must have been experienced by most people a few hundred years ago.

      To me that’s progress, but I’m not sure most people see it that way.

  13. Alex Thompson says:

    You’re conflating “I hear you” with “I agree with you”. I don’t need to agree with a person to understand their point of view, and so while we might diverge in beliefs, we can understand one another. I do think you are on to something here though = I feel the divergence.

    You write:

    “Divergentism is the assertion that as time goes on, you are in a net no or silent relationship with an increasing fraction of humanity. Imperceptibly, silence descends on you. At least if you keep seeing, learning, doing and thinking. Or growing, for short.”

    The underlying assumption is that I am not learning about others’ beliefs. But what if I am growing in part by learning about others’ beliefs? The I understand other perhaps better and better (in absolute terms, maybe in relative terms) and the divide of understanding narrows… while the divide in beliefs may grow or narrow depending on how my beliefs evolve.

    • @Alex Thompson: I think you are underestimating how hard it can be to understand someone else views and opinions without having a significant shared life-experience.

      To take a basic, but common, example: people in rural or small town areas have a completely different mode of life than people in large cities, and even with shared media exposure, they still often can’t understand each others’ views.

      Gun control is a great issue to see this (easier for me to see anyway; I am not an American). City people usually can’t imagine why anyone who isn’t a “nut” or a criminal would want to own a gun, whereas rural people can’t understand why city people can’t see that owning a gun is an essential, practical right.

      Neither side really understands the other’s position until they grasp the whole lifestyle and presuppositions that lead to that position.

      • Alex Thompson says:

        Marc,

        I think you are completely correct that there’s volumes of context underlying any mutual understanding. My point is more that I don’t have to agree with your beliefs to understand you. And as well, there are probably some core things I can understand about your context that will allow me to understand your point of view. These two factors lower the bar for mutual understanding. I think Venkatesh seems to be saying that when beliefs diverge, people can no longer understand one another, but that does not seem to be the case. Instead it becomes true that people have difficulty agreeing with one another.