The User Illusion
The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down To Size by Tor Norrentranders came out in 1991, but it wasn’t translated from Danish into English until 1998. I didn’t read it until 2000. The user illusion is the illusion created for the user by a human-computer interface, for example the visual metaphor of a desktop used in many graphical user interfaces. The phrase originated at Xerox.
He introduced the notion of exformation, which is explicitly discarded information, in this book. According to this metaphor, our experience of the world is not immediate, as all sensation requires processing time. It follows that our conscious experience is less a perfect reflection of what is occurring, and more a simulation produced unconsciously by the brain. Therefore, there may be phenomena that exist beyond our peripheries, beyond what consciousness could create to isolate or reduce them.
Norrentranders says the puzzle of communication is how it can be possible. A good communicator does not think only of himself, he also thinks about whatever the receiver has in his head. It is not enough for the explicitness of the information to refer to some information in the senders head if that information does not somehow lead to the correct associations by the receiver. The words are merely references to something not present in the words—but present in our heads. The idea of conversation is to elicit related states in each other’s minds and then exchange the events that take place in our own heads. You don’t merely believe what they are saying, you sympathize, you love the person, you miss them, etc.
It is more important to know what is going on in people’s heads than to understand the words they speak. But if there is a contradiction between what is said and what is meant, in the long run you’ll go mad. It is good for you to get mad at people who say one thing verbally and then say the opposite with their bodies. Conscious language manages very little of what goes on in a social situation. Far too much information is discarded before we get to the information. People who not understand the subtext make fools of themselves.
Take music for example. The main thing in music is not the sound waves. It is that the composer or player converts a number of mental states into a pattern which evokes the same (or different) mental states for the listener. If we want to understand Bach or The Beatles, what we need to look at is not much the information that is conveyed by the notes, but the exformation the notes evoke in the listener.
The fact is every single second millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness process only perhaps 40bits a second at most. Millions and millions of bits condensed to conscious experience that contains practically not information all. Every single second, everyone discards millions of bit in order to arrive at the special state known as consciousness. Consciousness is not about information, but about its opposite—order.
Symbols are Trojan horses by which we smuggle bits into our consciousness. Our memories are limited by the units or symbols we must master. Thus, it is helpful to organize material intelligently before we try to memorize it. Rote memorization realize on chunking information, or organizing it.
Intelligence is thus not about remembering lots of microstats at once in a sequence. Intelligence is about being able to see what microstats best combine with all the other microstates. Seeing a jumble of confused data into a concise, clear message can be a real turn on. Beauty, elegance, ease and laid-backness are linked. Saying a lot in a few words or signs is beautiful. Everything is not present, but it not gone either. Consciousness breathes information and exhales exformation.
As Schopenhauer said, “Thoughts die the moment they are embodied by words.” The picture is very clear—there is plenty that goes on inside of us that we are not even aware of. Consciousness is ingenious because it knows what is important. The sorting and interpretation of data is NOT conscious on our part though. Subliminal perception and sorting is the real secret behind consciousness.
It is a pretty weird notion to realize that we do not live in real time at all. We experience the world on a sort of delay. This, of course, allows us time to keep track of all the illusions and solve all the binding problems, coordinate the many different sensory date that are processed in numerous ways via numerous channels in the brain into one world, one experience, one object. But nevertheless, it means that we experience a sort of lie. Because we do not experience it directly, but filtered through our consciousness our experience lags behind.
The User Illusion is a metaphor indifferent to the actual 0s and 1s. It is, instead, concerned with overall function. Consciousness is not a user illusion for the whole world or the whole of one’s self. Consciousness is a user illusion for the aspect of the world that can be affected by consciousness itself. The user illusion is one’s very own map of one’s self and one’s possibilities of intervening in the world.
Civilization is about removing information about our surroundings, discarding information about nature so our senses are not burdened with all that information and consciousness so we can concentrate on other matters. We cut away the loads of information from our surroundings in order to devote ourselves to the inner lives inside our heads and our lives in society. However, our surrounding become so little of a burden to us that we can allow ourselves to relocated consciousness to a ½ a second behind reality so can talk about with other people.
Information in society can seem stressful because it contains not too much information, but too little instead. Sense poverty is on its way to becoming a major problem in society, provoking a cry for meaning amidst the flow of information. Man has moved down to a lower bandwidth and is getting work. “What is done by myself, I feel, is done by something greater than myself in me,” said James Clerk Maxwell. He did not suffer from the User Illusion.