Are our idols consuming us?

Have you ever stood by, staring blankly ahead as to of your friends chatted animatedly about something you were clueless about? It might be the details of an episode of The Wire, or a new strategy for borrowing money for a house deposit. You recognise the words they’re using, but it doesn’t fit together into something that makes sense.

If the situation sounds familiar, it’s because you’re a victim of a 400 year old prophecy from a gentleman sometimes credited as the father of modern science: Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon (yes, his name is great) proposed a series of four idols, which stand in the way of us accessing knowledge. The two I’m going to talk about, and which are most important today, are the idols of the marketplace and the idols of the theatre.

Bacon’s marketplace is all about language. We are continually negotiating when we talk, to evoke and communicate what we mean to someone else. We draw from a diverse market of words to do so. However, the way each person, and each group of people, access that market is different. Do you watch Scrubs? If yes, then a part of your language market will be available to you that is inaccessible to a non-Scrubs watcher. Are you a string theorist? You’ll probably struggle to understand what a scaffolder is saying when he talks about his work. For Bacon, this was important: knowledge must be able to be shared, so we need to guard against jargon, and on the flipside, oversimplification or casual language can obscure what we really mean.

A puzzling question! Flickr: Horia Varlan.

Not only must we be aware of our place in the market, Bacon argued, we are also players in a grand theatre. Ideologies influence how we perceive the world, shaping what we do like a play’s director pulling the strings of her actors. As we filter ideas into our awareness, we seek to compare it against the mesh of ‘knowledge’ we already hold. Ideas that contradict what we think are more likely to be rejected; this often happens without us even being aware of it. Imagine a messenger attempting to intrude on a play to pass new instructions to an actor, being barred entry by the director so he can maintain complete control over his play’s content.

With the rise and rise of the internet, we are able to immerse ourselves in markets and theatres that are comfortable and familiar: people who think and speak like we do. Online communities share and create their own language and ideology, which allows people to reinforce, rather than broaden, their world view.

Are these idols becoming more of a problem? I believe so. There’s a huge and growing divide between the specialism and scope of human knowledge, and the ability of any given person to learn or understand it. Not only that, online networks can offer people with extreme views access to positive reinforcement, even if their real-life social networks are very different. This will only continue, as our experience of the internet is increasingly tailored to our personal preferences via custom searches and recommended links.

I’m not naive enough to think that I can see far outside of my own marketplace or theatre. The studies I’m doing, and more importantly, the people I’ve been getting to know since moving to London, have definitely broadened my perspectives on a lot of things. My ideology is in a state of flux too: no matter how much thought I’ve given to certain issues, like environmentalism or political structure, I simply can’t find a position I’m comfortable with. The squirrels vs cats question keeps me up at night as well.

When was the last time you found yourself floundering in a new marketplace, or stumbling into the wrong theatre? Did you learn the language, or adjust your ideology because of your experience? I’m interested!

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Categories: communication, Problems, Thoughts | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Are our idols consuming us?

  1. Thanks so much for this post, David, this is a fascinating topic.

    For me, starting my own business forced me into an alien “theatre”: a world full of jargonistic clichés like ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘singing off the same hymnsheet’. I could write an entire book about the corrosive nature of business jargon but for the sake of brevity I’ll just say that I think it’s possible to adapt to new linguistic patterns without adopting them yourself: but it does require a conscious, disciplined effort to resist.

    It gets very interesting when the incentive to resist is less strong. The language used by couples is something that fascinates me. My parents have been married for over 30 years and as time goes by I’ve noticed that they’re increasingly adopting each other’s linguistic habits. Even in my own relationship, 6 years in, I’m starting to check myself when I begin to formulate sentences that sound like Adrian should be saying them!

    In terms of the role of the internet, I certainly agree there’s a very real danger of “normalising” extreme views or unhealthy behaviour by making it so easy to form groups (the rise of pro-anorexia websites is extremely worrying). I do think there’s a positive side to it, though. Simply being present on social networks like Twitter and Facebook forces you to confront other people’s marketplaces and theatres. I’ve got 170-odd people on my Facebook friend list, which is fairly modest, but even that number enables me to learn about people’s day-to-day experiences of lives that are very different from mine. I’m not a mother, student, lawyer, scientist (!), teenager or expat – but Facebook gives me the smallest of windows into what it might be like to be such a person.

    • Very true – some of the friends on my facebook list, especially those from high school, have taken completely different paths from mine, which is cool to see. And it is so easy to slip in to the habit of using certain phrases – I’ve started saying “Right?” as a greeting. Initially it was a kind of self-mocking acknowledgement of the fact that, as an Aussie, I wouldn’t ‘normally’ say that… and now I normally say it. Football/soccer is another obvious example.

      Oh, and I hadn’t read your site before. Handy stuff!

  2. You’re always coming up with interesting topics and questions!

    While I agree that the Internet has made it easier for people with narrow or extreme views to “find each other”, it’s also allowed others (like myself) to “meet” people from completely different walks of life or living in different countries and cultures. It’s definitely broadened my views regarding people who live lives very different to my own.

    Ultimately, I think how you use modern media and the Internet depends on your own personality. There will always be people who even in their real lives choose to isolate themselves, or limit their exposure to new ideas.

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