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  • Umwelt: One's surroundings or environment; the outer world as perceived by organisms within it.
    ~ Wiktionary

    I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.
    ~ David Eagleman, Incognito: The secret lives of the brain

    Irony is supposed to be passé these days, but I'll never stop noting the irony of people who say they speak for a country, a people, a culture, a religion or a profession as if they know what all involved are thinking and it's exactly what they happen to be saying.

    It's even more ironic when the person pontificating is not even a member of the group being explicated, such as when a Christian describes what Jews think, a boss says what workers want, or a doctor knows what a patient needs. How can they be so sure they know what they are talking about?

    Yet, as David Eagleman points out, it's even harder to understand what we think than to know what someone else may be thinking. So much of our brain is inaccessible to our consciousness. The view looking down into the cauldron of our concepts is obscured by smoke. What we choose to say is often determined by things our brain is up to that we never notice. We confuse what we say and why we say it with when and how we choose to say it.

    In other words, we often don't know what we're talking about, and we don't know we don't know. We generalize from our experience through the filter of our beliefs to say things like "the American people don't want higher taxes," or "convicted felons should not be eligible to vote."

    It's the umwelt: that bubble of reality that we walk through life inside – encapsulating the physical, cultural, and psychic environments our consciousness emerged from. It generally takes an effort of will to break out of our bubbles, usually preceded by extreme events.

    Think of an umwelt like the geocentric view of the universe before the Ptolemaic Revolution, when the earth was seen as the center point of all creation. Then, for a while, people subscribed to a heliocentric universe, in which all celestial bodies revolved around our Sun. Now astronomers believe that the universe is multicentric, with galaxies revolving around black holes. I wonder how long that view will stand.

    Meanwhile, back on Earth, and despite the Internet, people are almost as parochial as ever and continue to bash one another, thinking they know best. Perhaps we're just obeying the laws of evolution: individuals and species competing for space and other resources to propagate their kind. Our conflicts and wars are just a Darwinian contest of umwelts.

    Fortunately, at least some people are able to transcend their umwelts in big and little ways every day, but not everybody and not all the time. It isn't easy to do, but there are tricks to escaping bubbles, like travel, intermarriage, meditation, seeking out diverse opinions, and simply asking "Why?" a lot.

    And taking part in communities of free expression, like Cowbird. But besides speaking your mind (or letting it speak for you), you need to listen to people you don't know much about, with whom you disagree, and who may not make sense to you.

    What I'd give to walk a mile in someone else's umwelt. And that's one big reason why I'm here, folks. Cowbird is a tool to achieve higher consciousness. It is free and was built just for us. How cool is that?

    @image: The shape of the online universe. This image shows the hierarchical structure of the Internet, based on the connections between individual nodes (such as service providers). Three distinct regions are apparent: an inner core of highly connected nodes, an outer periphery of isolated networks, and a mantle-like mass of peer-connected nodes. The bigger the node, the more connections it has. Those nodes that are closest to the center are connected to more well-connected nodes than are those on the periphery. From Technology Review
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