Nothing happens in a vacuum. Our entire known universe is interconnected.
Feedback is all around us. It can arrive in the form of verbal comments from a trusted friend. It can be cells in our bodies interacting with each other via biochemistry. Or, on a grand scale, it can be biodiversity in action as one species ensures the survival of another in a very obscure way.
Why is it so hard for us to notice and interpret feedback all around us?
What happens when feedback is manipulated artificially?
The Butterfly Effect
I previously posted a personal reflection, freely written, of the same name as this title. (It was not a hit, so it was also the last time that I posted such a thing. Feedback!)
As the explanation goes, a single beat of a butterfly's wings can set enormous things in motion as one small action snowballs.
If we look at this under a different lens, we can see a fluid, ever-changing feedback loop rather than a rigid series of events. Some events led to what we have labeled butterflies. The butterflies, in turn, create a different series of events that both affect them and lead to an outcome that would not exist without them.
It is subtle but absolutely real. Imagine if, among the billions of people that have lived, a key figure in history were removed. Intuitively, we know that our outcomes today would be tangibly different, even if it is impossible to prove. Time travel is out of the question – unless you know something that I do not. (Time is an invented, human notion.)
In my recent posts, I have sporadically discussed neuroplasticity. If you are just joining us, neuroplasticity refers to the demonstrated fact that any stimulus – any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or even emotion or thought – can change us thereafter. For example, a call from an old friend will cause our day to play out differently than no call.
Humanity, in turn, is entangled in nature's plasticity. One event changes everything thereafter. Consider a common action: cutting down a tree. Cutting down a single tree may destroy a squirrel's nest. In turn, this action stops a young squirrel from fulfilling one purpose in an ecosystem: planting more trees [by randomly burying nuts in your front yard].
It is not just the loss of one tree, but a chain of events that are set in motion.
Nature is the butterfly effect. Human consciousness is inseparable from the butterfly effect since this is neuroplasticity, defined. Small things matter tremendously.
Now It's Personal!
Although the butterfly effect is real and profound, many people cannot be actively influenced by a sight, sound, or thought until it affects them personally. (Consider the comedy if this were true: one small sneeze sets an entire office into a frenzy as everyone rushes for tissues for the affected.)
This was previously an evolutionary advantage: calories were scarce and thinking is expensive. Why expend energy if our hair is not on fire?
What previously helped us survive now threatens our survival. We are apathetic toward global crises because they are not tangible and not in our face. We do not hear the forests burning or see the animals dying with their ecosystems. We are preoccupied with things in our immediate consciousness: why is my friend a few minutes late to meet me, or can I save money by shopping across the street.
Corporations are mostly to blame since they hide this imagery. Suppose that they did not. What if your favorite clothing retailer put up a big display outside their store: a giant water bottle containing 2,700 liters of water.
What purpose would this serve? To remind you that a cotton t-shirt requires, on average, 2,700 liters of water to produce. Such a display might make us reconsider our purchase. We might even begin to proudly wear shirts with holes.
Advertisers understand this. When a charity is trying to raise money for children in poverty, emotional music and pictures of starving children are shown. Ads are in our face and made personal. That is why we care.
Ads are also shaping our feedback loop, changing what we believe is essential to our immediate survival. Once our basic needs are met, ads feel tangibly real and in our face. And something as mundane as choosing black or blue for a t-shirt color is lighting up our limbic system in the same way as children that are starving, unsure of their next meal.
With great irony, this is neuroplasticity at work. Choosing a color is more personal, more immediate, and biochemically more threatening than considering the footprint of the shirt and the conditions in the labor supply chain. Because the ad brought it to our attention. The ad makes it urgent.
The personalized, manipulative content in the ad now threatens our survival. It is the butterfly effect in full force: seeing a certain pattern of lit pixels on a glowing rectangle changes our trajectory for the day and can have far-reaching consequences.
Ty is a Founder of Shift Sight, LLC.