Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the things we design can design us as well. “We become what we behold,” as the old proverb goes. Such is the power of ontological design. Jason Silva, host of National Geographic Channel’s Brain Games, explores the feedback loops that cause the brain to be influenced by locations and designs.
Jason Silva: I’ve recently become obsessed with the role that design plays in the construction of our mindware and the construction of our sense of self. And I remember I was in Cape Town giving a keynote for IBM and this guy that I met called Mahool, a computer scientist, brilliant guy who was a fan of my web series Shots of Awe, showed up for this talk. And we ended up connecting and going and hanging out and spending the day walking around the botanical gardens of Cape Town in the middle of a storm on this bridge that went over the canopy of trees. It was a total kind of — you couldn’t ask for a better stage for a sort of cerebral conversation. And I was talking to him about my desire to steer awareness. Again, how do I transcend to what Michael Pollan calls the been theres and done thats of the adult mind. How do I elicit a childlike sense of wonder? How do I control and steer subjectivity? My obsession. And so he said, “Oh, that’s easy. You know we do that all the time with design. It’s called ontological design.” I was like, “What? Onto, what? Tell me again. Ontological design.”
And I was like, “What does that mean?” Well it has to do with the nature of beingness itself, ontology, what it is to be, what it is to inhabit a mind world, a life world, a worldhood. And basically the idea of ontological design is very simple. It basically says that design affects us in a way that is much more pervasive than we’re normally privy to. The notion is that whether we’re conscious of it or not everything that we design is designing us back. We are being actively designed by that which we have designed. This, of course, echoes Terence McKenna’s idea that we become what we behold. Or Marshall McLuhan’s notion that first we build the tools, but then they build us, you know. Or Steven Johnson when he says our thoughts shape our spaces, you know. We build cathedrals; we build architectural dwellings and then those spaces return the favor. Those spaces build our thoughts. Our thoughts build our spaces; the spaces return the favor. So my friend was talking about this notion that ontological design implies that there’s this hermeneutic circle in the sense of mind emerges into feedback loops between brains, tools, and environments. There’s a meaning-making circle. The self emerges like the ouroboros, like the dragon that’s eating its own tail, right. Or like Escher’s hands where you have the hand that is drawing the hand that is drawing it. So it’s like this infinity loop.
And that that’s basically how the way mindware emerges, you know. Who we are — the feedback loop should be the metaphor of our age, right. Instead of the DNA molecule, it should be the feedback loop. There was an essay written in Aeon Magazine recently about this notion. But again it’s not just our genetics that determine who we are; it’s the feedback loops between self and world. And this is the notion of ontological design. And I think the takeaway being is that by harnessing those feedback loops we can build better mindware. We can build systems; we can build cities, cityscapes, dwellings, spaces. Even the words we use to map our reality can be improved recursively because it’ll feed back and then improve who we are. Better tools, those tools then interface with us and create better ideas and then we use those tools to build new tools. And then those new tools interface with us and so on and so forth until novelty approaches infinity and realities fly apart as Diana Slattery writes in her book Xenolinguistics. Yeah, so again it should give us as humans a sense of responsibility for authoring the mindedness of the future, you know. The minds of the future can be built. It’s kind of a social engineering project. Everything that we design should be thought of as a building block, as new construction kits for our reality.
You can imagine why my head exploded when I was with this guy over the canopy on a bridge in the botanical gardens of Cape Town during a storm and the guy starts telling me about ontological design. Because I was witnessing ontological design happening in that moment. That stage, that context in which we were — over the trees in the botanical gardens was conditioning the nature of my subjective experience as he was telling me about this idea. I was witnessing the power of our creative and linguistic choices to author my subjectivity. Even the words we were using to describe, to map our experience were being fed back into our experience. And it’s just a reminder of the sort of dizzying freedom that we have to compose our lives, to compose our experience. Timothy Leary used to call this the vertigo of freedom. It’s a crazy idea, right? But I find it reassuring. I find it inspiring that we have — we are the music makers. We are the dreamers of dreams. We have the pen. We get to be reality engineers, reality architects and I love that. I love that idea.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton