A massive danger we now see all around us comes from people convinced that their perceptions, whatever the limitations of their view, whatever anybody else might have to say about these perceptions, are accurate reflections of the world. Opinion, shaped by what we know and endlessly confirmed by the reliable Confirmation Bias (they agree with me, I must be right!) is magnified and hardened by the agreement of others. The particular silo of opinion we spend most of our time in will shape our perception of the world. The anonymous “friend” groups of the internet, we learn, are incredibly powerful in shaping perceptions and opinions. The lonelier and more disconnected the individual, the more they will be influenced by a community online who claims to see things just like they do.
Our perceptions are shaped by a number of things, limited by our point of view, our knowledge and our access to useful evidence. The level and quality of information we take in is as crucial in forming our perceptions as our ability to gather and sort through reliable information. Our general feeling of well-being or ill health, our mood, our level of fear, the people we trust, the ones we hate, all shape our perceptions. How angry or upset we are at a given moment is a huge factor in how we see things (anger and fear will distort perceptions like nobody’s business) and the secret of Trumpism’s otherwise irrational appeal (keep ’em mad as hell at the ENEMY).
Here’s a recent example, from my own life, of how perceptions, and the emotions that color them, can distort your view of what is real. A few months back we arranged a reunion with old friends we hadn’t seen since before the pandemic, a gathering I was greatly looking forward to. A few days before the weekend we all agreed to take the COVID-19 test to ensure that none of us could be contagious to the others, possibly transmit a breakthrough infection. We’d all been vaccinated, so this test was part of an “abundance of caution,” as the saying goes, during the new super-infectious Delta variant surge. Sekhnet and I were tested side by side and were told we’d have a text when the results were in.
The day before the weekend, Sekhnet woke up to a text informing her that her test came back negative. I, on the other hand, got a missed call from the outfit that had done the test. They left me a message: “Hello, I’m calling from New York City Health and Hospitals, we need to speak to you in regards to your recent test and will call you back again soon. Thank you.” I tried calling the number, but it was not a working number. I groaned, snarled, agonized and belly-ached, waiting for the call back, cursing that bane of American existence, “health care” bureaucracy, dreading the bad news the eventual conversation would certainly impart. Meantime, I was helpless.
If it wasn’t bad news, why hadn’t I received the same good news text Sekhnet had, which did they “need to speak to me” regarding my test results? This obvious question was one I could not solve for — it had to be had news, I became convinced. If it had been good news, I’d also have gotten a text, no? At one point I put my phone on charge and went to the bathroom to micturate (as they say in certain prep schools). During the short time it took to empty my bladder I had the promised call back. This time they left no message.
“HIPPA,” offered Sekhnet, at one point, trying to explain why they’d left me no medical information on my phone. As to the simple text informing her of the wonderful, personal, result of her medical test, a text seemingly in clear violation of HIPPA, she had no immediate explanation.
My perception that I must have tested positive became unshakable, and it was driven by anxiety that I would now have to miss the gathering with well-loved old friends I’d been looking forward to. Sekhnet and I had been tested six feet apart, virtually simultaneously. It made no sense that the same outfit would send a good news text to one of us and not the other, if we’d both tested negative. Sekhnet offered theories, maybe they’d gone to different labs, somehow. My mind kept returning to “it makes no fucking sense!”
True, it made no fucking sense. Aggravating though the seven hours was before I was able to confirm that my test too had come back negative, in the end it still made no fucking sense. The wall of perception that kept me convinced it had to be bad news (until I was able to confirm otherwise) was built from a logical assumption. What I hadn’t stopped to consider is how often, in our modern, digital, corporatized society, things simply make no fucking sense.
I had a friend named Andy, bright, witty, socially maladroit and occasionally locked up in a laughing academy until his wilder moods could be stabilized, who made a nice living writing computer code. He was responsible for how websites acted, where the buttons were to make things work and so forth. I’d observed many times how idiosyncratic Andy was, he always radically adjusted your desk chair when he sat in it, immediately retuned your guitar (breaking a string once in a while) and so forth. I later realized he was probably somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. What was intuitive and useful to him was by no means universal, is what I’m trying to say.
Anytime I encounter a weird glitch on a website, like a frustrating “help” cul du sac you cannot exit from when seeking further information, I immediately picture a room full of Andys, coders with engineering smarts who do not necessarily think and act like the average person. Feature, bug? Who gives a fuck? The money is in constantly tweaking the code, the algorithms, the arrangement of the menus, the efficiency or complexity of the help features. In fact, just today, a room full of fucking Andys at WordPress changed the settings on the editor, so that the text, as you write, can no longer be blown up to an easily readable font, for old eyes like mine. Everyone, obviously, prefers their text at a steady 10 pt, extending the full width of your screen, without the former ability to work on it with less eye strain in a viewer that let you blow the words up to any size you’d like.
There was some kind of human/machine fuck up at the testing place when Sekhnet got her promised text and I got a call from a nonworking number, then another that left no message, no way to get in touch with anyone. I spent hours, convinced the news I didn’t yet have had to be bad (even the “None Detected” I was eventually able to see online was not reassuring, since Sekhnet had gotten a straight forward “negative” by text), finding nobody on the phone, after each long wait, who could confirm the seemingly simple, now obvious, answer that “None detected” is another way of saying “Negative”.
When, at the end of a long, frustrating day, I finally got somebody from the NYC Covid-testing hotline who could instantly confirm that “none detected” did not mean “test inconclusive” but “negative”, my mind was finally put to rest, having at last the clear answer I’d been denied by various Andys all day long. My doctor friend shook her head at my unnecessary day of aggravation (and the hell poor Sekhnet had been put through), since everybody with any sense should intuitively know that “none detected” means “negative”, something very obvious in hindsight, once you learn they are the same, after numerous help hotline folks did not know that for a fact.
True, obvious once you know, but from my point of view, the illogic of one person getting a promised text and the other endlessly waiting for a second callback that never came, was something I couldn’t simply accept as human error. It made no sense and it was going to directly and immediately effect my life for the worse. I had to verify that “none detected” (which I learned on-line after an hour or so of uncertainty) meant negative. If it is so intuitive, why was nobody in the city health bureaucracy I finally got to speak to able to clarify that for me?
There could have been a note to that effect online (“none detected” is the same as “negative”), where they gave you the test result, true, but none of the Andys involved with the website were told to put a note there. So, fearful that I might have to miss the social weekend I’d been looking forward to for weeks, I called various help lines, and waited, with sinking heart, on endless muzak blasting phone queues because of the huge volume of worried callers who were being helped by representatives who themselves could not confirm the seemingly simple, now obvious, fact that None Detected means Negative.
Knowing that these two terms are identical, having had them confirmed, and shrugged at by a doctor friend who couldn’t understand how I could not know the terms mean the same thing, I can now advise anyone in the unnecessary anguish I was in. Before I knew this undeniable fact? I was trapped behind the wall of my perceptions.