David Foster Wallace called his commencement speech at Kenyon College, “This is water”. He began with a short story about two young fish swimming in the ocean who met an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. This fish nodded at them and said, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish looked at each other, swam a little further, and said, “What the hell is water?”
Water, our water, is so deep in our DNA that we hardly notice it. We can call it culture, common sense, or just what is right here. It’s a filter through which we see reality and make decisions.
Last weekend, I played a virtual reality entertainment game. The goal was to fight against a horde of zombies that wanted to destroy humanity, and, of course, we were the only ones who could stop them. The adventure unfolds in different environments with very realistic graphics, and many sound effects.
As soon as I put on the glasses, I literally felt like I was in another, dystopian, real world. So real that my mind forgot that it was a game and suffered fear, stress, and dizziness.
In fact, we were in a large, empty room, believing that there were obstacles, stairs, and even a corbel trough that we had to escape.
My perception of actual reality was impaired. And I noticed some other things changed because of the context.
The game, the visual and sound effects, and the glasses were a big deal for my mind. But it doesn’t take that much effort to pollute our senses and impair our perception.
Perception is the mechanism by which we make sense of the world. We gather information from our senses, process it, and search for meaning. All of this is heavily influenced by our beliefs, values, and assumptions. We notice it or not. This is the water we usually live in.
When the context changes, real or imagined, the information coming from our senses can cause us to change our assumptions. These are the frameworks we use to interpret the world.
Now think about how easy it is for you to change your assumptions or your assessment of reality just because you read or hear something new that you believe. If it’s easy enough to understand and fits in with what we generally believe, we usually don’t take the time to confirm whether it’s true or not. It becomes part of our water, and from that moment on, we rely on that knowledge to make our decisions, whether they are important or not.
Fake news or half-true news has this effect on our mind. It’s like we’re wearing these virtual reality glasses.