Feeling lost? You’re not alone. After a global pandemic that saw unprecedented disruption to everyday affairs, we have staggered into the scene of a bloody and intractable conflict between nuclear blocs. Artificial intelligence is spreading its tentacles through society, upending old certainties and threatening to make humans redundant. All the while the countdown continues towards a 1.5-degree global-warming tipping point – set for 2027 at the last calculation (but it could be sooner).
To say the effects are dizzying is an understatement. It’s as if we’re stuck on a fairground ride with no one at the brake.
The global economy has been engineered to reward those who take the least responsibility for creating the most mayhem. Bright young things dream of growing up to be disrupters
Disorientation can be unpleasant, causing anxiety and a feeling of helplessness. It also has serious consequences for society. If we don’t know what direction we’re facing in, how can we deal effectively with threats to our existence?
Pablo Fernandez Velasco, a research fellow at Trinity College Dublin, has become a student of disorientation, analysing the multiple ways in which we can experience unmooring, perplexity and discombobulation. “My main theory is that there is an implicit cognitive process evaluating how well one is doing at navigation and that when something goes awry the feeling of disorientation emerges to regulate the situation.”
The Covid pandemic provided rich material for research. Fernandez Velasco, with a group of other academics, carried out surveys during the health emergency to explore how we dealt with the loss of traditional boundaries or landmarks in our lives. One type of disorientation people experienced was spatial, “like when you get lost in the woods, or on your way back from a party”, linked in part to pandemic controls on the physical environment. Another type was temporal, which is to say related to the loss of a proper sense of time as one lockdown day blended into another. Another still was social disorientation caused by a loss of human contact, remote working and so on.
“What we found is that social and temporal disruptions were widespread during the pandemic but that the former were much more of a unified phenomenon than the latter. So people felt socially disoriented in more or less the same way. But people could be temporally disoriented because of a sense of time going faster or slower than usual.”
There are other types of disorientation, Fernandez Velasco points out, including moral disorientation – a loss of moral reference points – and epistemic disorientation, relating to a loss of confidence in how to distinguish knowledge from bullshit. To make matters worse, the global economy has been engineered to reward those who take the least responsibility for creating the most mayhem. A sign of our times is that elite graduates and other bright young things dream of growing up to be disrupters.
Fernandez Velasco, whose research blends philosophy with cognitive science, discusses whether we need to rethink our attitude to disruption, and whether we can find a cure for disorientation, as this week’s Unthinkable guest.
How is the emergence of artificial intelligence creating disorientation? It strikes me that spatial disorientation is on the rise, as it’s increasingly unclear where the ‘real world’ lies.
Pablo Fernandez Velasco: “AI really seems to have emerged in the public consciousness rather forcefully and suddenly with the advent of Dall-E, Midjourney, ChatGPT, etc. However, I would say that the type of disorientation at hand is not really spatial. If one is struggling to see where ‘real world’ lies, that would be closer to existential disorientation, a deep form of disorientation about one’s place in the world…
“What I imagine will be rather pervasive is epistemic disorientation. Roughly speaking, by epistemic disorientation I mean disorientation about our ways of knowing things.”
A factor that you have alluded to in your research is what Francis Fukuyama calls the democratisation of authority. Does this contribute to epistemic disorientation?
“Precisely ... Fukuyama was just talking about the digital revolution at large, but AI kind of turbocharges things. Basically, it flattens the mental hierarchies we used to have – like, what’s a reliable source, who is a trusted voice in the field, and so on and so forth. Of course, epistemic disorientation – about what’s true – leads to the existential disorientation you mentioned earlier, about what’s real.
“Disorientation can extend from one domain to another – social to temporal but also epistemic to political, even to existential disorientation. It can be a paralysing thing. And it can make us very vulnerable to exploitation.”
We are in an age when social and technological disrupters are celebrated. But should we be wary of disruption for its own sake?
“Absolutely. Particularly in the light of the climate crisis and our overall extractivist system. Naomi Klein wrote a very good column recently about this, in particular having to do with the inflated claims about how AI will solve this and that. There is some promise, of course, but one has to look at the overall system in which the technology operates. First, AI is a tool, so extractive industries will use it to extract more efficiently. Moreover, AI will flatten our epistemic landscape, so it will be much harder to galvanise the momentum required to face the climate catastrophe that we are very much headed towards.
“Separate to disorientation, I have written some work on the epistemic value of disruption within a cultural system ... Disruption can lead to a reorganisation of the larger cultural system until it settles into a ‘more optimal’ arrangement. Still, there are two big problems with the cult of disruption. First, disruption is exalted as a good in itself because it is part and parcel of the capitalist mindset. But disruption for disruption’s sake doesn’t guarantee progress. Secondly, we have to ask what progress means – higher returns? – and for whom the progress is. For shareholders?
“As is the case with disruption, there are some potential benefits to disorientation. It leads to reorientation, to new ways of operating in the world. Sometimes we get lost, and this means that we look at things around us with new eyes, we take new paths, we become open to the unexpected. It might be that this kind of radical reorientation is what, at some point, will be needed to face the many challenges that encircle us. However, in most cases the disorientation that results from disruption can be a paralysing thing with largely detrimental social and political effects. So we have to be very careful when we talk about disruption.”
Is there a cure for disorientation, or a way of alleviating the symptoms?
“No magic elixir, I am afraid ... Still, in the case of the pandemic there seemed to be some ways of remediating disorientation, which might be useful for other contexts. On the side of policy and governance, clear, consistent messaging helps. And hopeful messaging, to avoid the feeling of the future closing in on us.
“What we found in our study is the devastating effect of social disorientation, the way it leads to other forms of disorientation. The way we orient ourselves is very often by relying on others. So nurturing the social fabric can be a cure for disorientation.”