The Point

One of my favorite things about the internet is watching how people interpret things. Particularly in blog or Twitter posts where someone is forced to condense what they took away from an article down to just a sentence or two. What you notice is that people are incredibly bad at getting the point. Or worse, they walk away with an entirely self-constructed impression. (see: this from this)

A good example is to watch a speculative story evolve across websites. Jokes turn into facts, anonymous quotes turn into official statements, bizarre details become evidence for warped conspiracy theories and so it goes down the chain.

Of course part of this is what they call the confirmation bias. People tend to seek out the parts of what they experience that confirm their existing beliefs, or more often, their unacknowledged preferences or sensitivities. But that doesn’t completely explain the tendency to so profoundly and creatively miss what was right in front of them.

The ability to reduce something down to its essence—to understand, analogize and articulate is a skill we tend to assume is simply there. It isn’t. In fact, most of the tools we have for sharing not only don’t facilitate this synthesis, they discourage it. Comments sections seem to thrive on conflict; a commenter needs to call the writer out or disagree with a trivial part of what they said. Twitter and Facebook are about sharing our opinion about a thing, not what that thing was. Newspapers, blogs and television, both for the creators and also for the viewers, are about making that thing as big as it can be or else it doesn’t deserve the attention. What we’re left with after consuming and participating in this cycle is an inability to comprehend what we see in an honest or accurate way.

If you think this process as a kind of entropy, then the question is how to rebuild what is constantly falling apart–or worse, what we were never explicitly taught. I think this is where several spiritual exercises have value. The first is one the Stoics called “contemptuous expressions,” essentially a way to use cynicism to reduce something to its most basic state. Sex is a few minutes of rubbing and then semen. What a King submits to in private versus the image he presents to his subjects. Another, from Cicero, is to ask this question in every situation: Cui bono? By assuming there is a exposed interest yet unmasked, we’re required to examine each party from an unusual but enlightening perspective—suspicion.

The idea of practicing the act of getting to the center or premise of something is about more than improving reading comprehension. In what they are describing as “economics of abundance” there is no scarcity to ensure preselection. This means that what we see, read, hear or are pitched—from entertainment to a business plan—is more likely to be bullshit. Think: misinterpretation layered on top of misinterpretation, stripped from context and general understanding. Without the ability to separate the folds to look at the central, underpinning parts of an issue, you’re at the mercy of the comically distorted reality of the people mentioned above.

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