The User Illusion

Tree Grass Clouds

An Excerpt from The User Illusion, By Tor Norretranders

The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second – at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits in order to arrive at the special state known as consciousness. But in itself, consciousness has very little to do with information. Consciousness involves information that is not present; information that has disappeared along the way…

“Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life that we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of,” the American psychologist Julian Jaynes wrote in his landmark work from 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which we shall be returning to in a later chapter. He continues: “How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

… There are no folders, trash cans, or pocket calculators inside [a computer]. There are just quantities of 0’s and 1’s in sequence. Indescribable quantities: A computer can contain many million 0’s or 1’s. But this is nothing that bothers the user; all he needs is to extract his work when he has finished it. The user can be completely indifferent to these enormous numbers of 0’s and 1’s. The user is interested only in what the user illusion presents: pages of a chapter, folders of completed chapters, folders of loose ends, correspondence, goofed sentences, and unorganized thoughts. The user illusion is a metaphor, indifferent to the actual 0’s and 1’s; instead it is concerned with their overall function.

The claim, then, is that the user illusion is a good metaphor for consciousness. Our consciousness is our user illusion for ourselves and the world…

… Just as the computer contains loads of bits that a user is not interested in, the Me contains loads of bits the I is not interested in. The I can’t be bothered to know how the heart pumps the blood around the Me – not all the time, at any rate. Nor can the I be bothered to know how an association occurs in the Me: the I would much rather know what it involves.

But it is not only the I experienced as our personal identity and active subject that is an illusion. Even what we actually experience is a user illusion. The world we see, mark, feel, and experience is an illusion.

There are no colors, sounds, or smells out there in the world. They are things we experience. This does not mean that there is no world, for indeed there is: The world just is. It has no properties until it is experienced. At any rate, not properties like color, smell, and sound.

I see a panorama, a field of vision, but it is not identical with what arrives at my senses. It is a reconstruction, a simulation, a presentation of what my senses receive. An interpretation, a hypothesis.

Tor Norretranders is a science writer, consultant, lecturer and organizer based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size and The Generous Man: How Helping Others Is the Sexiest Thing You Can Do. His latest books in Danish are about obseity/nutrition, and about Einstein.





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*All of the excerpts on my blog are from books that have stayed with me for some reason—because the concept was awe inspiring, changed how I view the world, was beautifully expressed, or all three. ‎I personally curate all of the book excerpts, and I always obtain the author’s final approval before posting their work on my blog.