ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Three Levels —

The longer I do stuff of a historical nature with computers, the more this puts me, ironically, in contact with people. And the more you end up in contact with people, the more you learn about people. The problem is, what if you don’t like what you learn?

I had an absolutely horrible English class with a teacher who had nothing but contempt for students. Her tirades drove me into books to read during class, and it was by luck that I found the story “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov. It’s over here and you might recognize it, or not. The upshot is that a young lawyer spends a lot of time learning about people and the more he does the less happy he is, until he renounces the bet he is involved in just to be rid of it.

This story was striking to me because at 13 I didn’t have any idea that increased knowledge could cause unhappiness; I was surrounded by so many people who were fighting to parade their ignorance that I assumed that in learning (as opposed to rote memorization) came pleasure, and I had stuck with that. And really, I continue to stick to that.

But age brings nuance and not everything ends up staying black and white, clean or dirty, all or none. For most of my young life I knew, just knew, that in any situation involving medical condition, that if there was a way for me to be kept alive, any means necessary, I would take it because of the utter void I knew awaited extinguishing. Now, I realize that there are conditions in which, ultimately, a lot of the reason for continued existence can be counterbalanced.


So after conducting hundreds of interviews, and in some cases spending months tracking down a story, I have this rough idea about reality in my head. I call it the three levels. It’s actually four, but I’ll explain that in a moment.

The first level is the “official story”. This is the story that people who do not care about history specifically usually have. George Washington was the first American president. The earth is round. Alexander Graham Bell discovered/invented the telephone, as did Edison the light bulb. There was a cold war and the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of it. The stories on this level are generally in the ballpark. If your job is not directly affected by knowing exactly who is Queen of England or how many city-states are in Asia, then you are a content little donut with the first level.

The second level is the “actual story”. This is not the actual story per se, but the story that is told to people who care a little more than those who know the first level. Typewriters certainly jammed, but the introduction of the standard qwerty keyboard over the previous formats is not necessarily because they jammed. The great videogame crash was certainly because of a glut of games, but also because of changes in the economy and investment. It is possible to read the output of wireless keyboards and decode them but why would anyone be doing that to you right now.

The third level is the objective observation, away from the writings and the witnesses and the stories and the lore. It’s what you get if you have a camera running on the situation or record things on tape, without going inside anyone’s head. This level has come more and more into prominence as of late. Don’t tase me, bro.

The fourth level, which I said sort of doesn’t exist, is the level you would get if you actually aimed the camera in the right direction and the camera was capable of recording thoughts, motivations, and situations from the past. With this magical camera, you’d really know what was up. We don’t have one of these cameras, although sometimes people will write books as if they have them, which really tends to piss the subjects of the books off.

So many times, I’ve encountered the first level during interviews. Occasionally the second. As rare as anything is the third. I never get the fourth.

Much of the discussion in web forums rests around the second level. We, the discussion group, know just enough to feel we’re worth debating it beyond the usual rubes. We can infer and bring together facts and cite sources and generally pontificate. Sometimes this is entertaining and sometimes it’s an explosion. But rarely, really, can you ever know what’s what. It comes down to who wins the debate, the argument, seems the least like a dick, and perseveres through the alternate opinions or contrarian onslaught.

The proliferation of multi-media availability means that more and more we face our actual selves recorded, doing what we did, with no real recourse for saying we didn’t do it or this was the way it really happened. Talented people are of course always working to say “it’s not what it looks like” but it certainly looks like it.

These three layers are in conflict with each other. You can shout until you’re blue in the face that the first level opinion is wrong, but you’re often countering it with your second level opinion, and you’re wrong too, buddy. Nobody, maybe not even the people involved, know of the full levels three and four. Maybe they do and choose to ignore it over time. The mind’s an amazing thing. It changes stuff. I’ve seen myself do it, I’ve seen others do it. Mid-interview. Mid-statement.

We spend so much time arguing, making our point, saying that we know the real story. My opinion, many interviews conducted later and much observation of writing later, is we find ourselves one level further than we’d like.

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  1. cassiel says:

    Simplification is nescessary for our brain as you can’t check, re-check and check again the facts on everything. But of course this can go wrong and intentionally wrong, because some people want other people to believe. This way urban legends come into existance. Some are known well e.g. much iron in spinach, but now people often think that there is no iron in it. Some are known less and then you are not sure anymore: is a vegan diet unhealthy? On the 1st level there is no doubt. Take any magazine. On the 2nd level you will find opposing views. And on the 3rd level you will have to know Vegans or scientific studies about vegan diet.

    I’m often discussing on subjects like this and many people don’t like or don’t want to get on a next level. As soon as I realize this I do stop arguing and tell them: look at the facts, get into detail, get experience and the discussion stops immediately.
    On the other hand as a I’m subject to this way of thinking too, I welcome the benefit of doubt and contradiction and check things at least quickly on plausibility: do they fit my experience? And if there is doubt and contradiction I do ask for the next level e.g. scientific evidence of dowsing.
    Once you are aware of these levels you can juggle with them and do profit from all of them: simplification on the one side and the hard facts on the other side.

  2. the daniel says:

    I think you could have finished every sentence about the 2nd level with “like on Metafilter”. 😉

  3. Jim Leonard says:

    I’m not sure why, but this is one of my favorite posts of yours this year so far.

  4. LateBlt says:

    Agree with Trixter. Great post. I like the insight.

    Much of the reason why people don’t go beyond the first level is simply because they lack the time. I’d love to know everything there is to know in the world, but no one can do that. No one has the time or mental capacity. Few enough people have interest or cause enough to learn that–for example–Abuja is the capital of Nigeria, let alone why it’s named that, how it was chosen to be the capital, etc. People usually only bother to look into the second level if the topic is something of significant personal interest or relevance.

    As you’ve correctly observed, however, the truth is not always what gets written in encyclopedias and textbooks. What gets taught to children in history, science, or language classes isn’t always the truth, or at least, not the whole truth. There are several reasons for this, some of them simply practical like lack of time and resources to give a sweeping, penetrating analysis of the universe to every child growing up. But there are other sociopolitical reasons as well.

    It is the nature of most world governments to cultivate a certain mindset in its citizens. Governments do not usually like the thought of people disagreeing with officially-held positions. Since those officially-held positions are frequently distortions of the truth if not outright falsehoods, most governments subtly attempt to instill a “Don’t question things too much” sort of attitude, the vague sense that “If something is officially considered true, then it’s probably true, and even if it’s not you’d probably better just accept it as such because otherwise you’d be stirring up trouble.”

    For better or for worse, a lot of people grow up believing that. This is true of most countries in the world, including the U.S. I like the U.S. and believe it is a country which offers more freedoms to its citizens than most countries of the world, but the American government has a partially-concealed agenda like any other bureaucracy.

    The real truth, as you’ve observed, doesn’t lie in officially-documented records. It lies in the hearts and minds of people. The result is sort of like being in Plato’s cave: We see the shadows of reality, we see the effects, but not the causes. We have a pretty decent idea of what’s happened, but we’ll rarely if ever know the full story of WHY something happened. This is, regrettably, just a part of life. Even in our present day, despite the Internet making more “information” more accessible to more people than ever before, the information that we get is filtered by opinions, circumstances, and gaps in knowledge. The nature of information and how people interpret and propagate it will likely remain about the same regardless of whatever changes occur in the technology used to spread that information.