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October 16th, 2019
The previous episode, entitled Shifting Symmetries laid out a thought experiment that attempts to capture the difficulties created by unique perspectives. It deserves to be highlighted and expanded upon.
The thought-experiment goes as follows:
Imagine a square room. At the midway point of each wall, a person is chained, and you are one of these four people. No one can really move. And in the center of this square room is an unreachable cube. Neither the bottom nor the top can be seen, and it’s aligned with the room so each person can only see one side of the cube. Let’s say all the cube faces are blank except the one you can see. It’s got the number 8 on it. And then from an unknown location, a speaker turns on and an ominous voice says “This room will fill with a deadly gas unless someone calls out the symbol on the box.”
In this simple hypothetical, you have the privileged perspective. Everyone else is bound to their point of view and quite literally can’t see the side of the box that you can. They see a blank face of the cube and nothing else. Your unique perspective is the key to solving everyone’s predicament.
This hypothetical, while simple is a perfect analogy to the way we are all trapped in our own perspective, and simultaneously privileged by that perspective in that it’s accessible to no one else.
It also highlights the difficulty of trying to convey your perspective. If we replace the simple number 8 with a beautiful painting, then suddenly it’s not so easy to communicate to everyone exactly what you see.
Now let’s change the thought experiment a little bit:
The speaker turns on, and asks for a single person to call out the symbol that is on the box. Except in this version of the hypothetical, you see the number 8, and on the other sides of the cube are different symbols and words that you can’t see. In addition to this, the cube appears to be transparent but this is an illusion that makes it look as though nothing is written on the other sides of the cube. So each person sees something different written on the cube and believes that it’s the only thing that’s written on the cube.
Now imagine the confusion and horror when everyone pipes up and yells out a different answer. Everyone is trying to solve for the problem, but each person’s unique perspective not only makes them think they are right, but also primes them to think everyone else is wrong and that everyone else is acting out in some sort of bizarre kind of self-sabotage.
Are they crazy?
No, it’s just how they see the situation.
The roll of the loudspeaker in this case plays the roll of a subtle assumption that is at work every day of our lives: We speak and we listen about the world as though we are all experiencing the same world. But of course we are not.
The world we experience is more like the cube, and instead of just having four sides with four people, it has billions of sides, and
not a single one shows the same thing.
This is why listening can be so powerful.
It’s the only way we can get a different view of the world.
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