Digital Inception

Is this anything?

Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture, broadly speaking. This post is part of a new feature I’ve titled “Is this anything?”: one idea for your consideration in less than 500 words.


The plot of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception, turns on the ability to infiltrate a person’s subconscious while they are dreaming in order to implant a thought they will then unwittingly act on in their waking life. Or something like that. It recently occurred to me that Inception was really a movie about how easy digital media has made it for a stray thought coming out of nowhere to get lodged in our minds with potentially destructive consequences.1 

Here’s the kind of situation I have in mind. You’re aimlessly scrolling through your feeds, minding your own business. An un-looked for stray data point catches your attention: a statistic, an anecdote, an image, a video clip, a chart, a meme … whatever. Maybe it’s not even from someone you follow. Perhaps it’s a tweet someone you follow has commented on, so it pops up for you. Or, out of curiosity, you click on a trending topic and inadvertently stumble upon it. But however it happens to cross your path, this stray bit of information sticks with you, like the after-feeling of a dream you can’t quite shake. The truthfulness or accuracy of the thing is not theoretically irrelevant, but may be practically so. Maybe it bugs you, discomfits you, troubles you, makes you anxious for a time, and then fades from memory. Or it lingers unexpectedly and becomes the first step toward a radical re-ordering of your worldview, for better or for worse.

This is an observation about human rationality as much as it is about the epistemic conditions generated by life in what Jay Bolter has aptly termed the digital plentitude and which I usually call the Database. We are not as narrowly rational in our thinking as many would like to believe. Which is why conventional “solutions” to the problems associated with our information ecosystem prove inadequate and may be intractable. The human person, to say nothing of human communities, is not a cognitive machine susceptible to technical tweaks. 

One other way of thinking about this is by analogy to Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts. Scientific paradigms shift when they can no longer account for confounding anomalies. In the context of digital media, our existing paradigms are exposed such anomalies at a higher rate. 

While radicalization, however we conceive of it, stands at one end of the spectrum of possibilities under these conditions, I’m actually more interested in less obvious but more widespread consequences:  low-level anxiety, nagging or even paralyzing uncertainties, the emergence of unhelpful coping mechanisms, etc.

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” Tolkien has Bilbo caution Frodo, “You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

We might well say that it’s a dangerous business going online. You step into the Database, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. 

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1

I don’t mean that Nolan actually intended this, only that the movie neatly illustrates the dynamic.