I’ve been chewing, chewing hard, on the philosophical topics being addressed in my courses this semester. As a result everything is running together in my mind, and I’m having trouble compartmentalizing design theory from interaction critique from hermeneutics from phenomenology. My brain is a bit of a mess as a result, and I’m still searching for my onramp into the discussion.

In an attempt to more closely relate course materials to my own thoughts and experiences, I wanted to take a moment to share a journal entry I wrote back in October of 2003. Indeed, it took some time to hunt down and transcribe, as it was written in handwriting on real-live paper. I think it summarizes what could be described as an account of experience, phenomenology and interpretation, as seen through the lens of processing and encoding.

Feel free to critique and comment, and rest assured you won’t hurt my feelings. I wrote this six years ago, which was approximately six years before I became familiar with the term “phenomenology.”

Without further ado…

Dane Petersen
October, 2003

All of our interaction with reality depends on encoding. We never interact with reality directly; when I see something or hear something, that external information needs to be picked up by my senses, translated into electrical impulses (encoded), and eventually decoded in my brain, where the appropriate chemical reactions take place to reproduce that particular sight or sound. There is always this necessary relay between us and reality; it always needs to be compressed into electrical signals generated by our bodies, and then deciphered into meaningful information.

Science deals with the gritty details of this encoding… how fast these impulses travel, what sensory perceptions will result in what physical and chemical changes, how reality is encoded and decoded by the senses, etc. But even a complete understanding of how the brain and body work together will not result in a complete understanding of how humans work and think. While by dismantling the program we can find out how and why it works, we will never learn how to work with the program.

What we’ve got here is front-end and back-end processing. Back-end is all the wild gritty scientific stuff about how humans accept, process and retain data about this world. Think of it as the binary code that makes up a computer program. You can look at all the little ones and zeroes and say, “Ah ha, I have discovered the language of perception!” However, this discovery does not necessitate that you have learned to speak the language.

The other side of it (and the side that I am most interested in, not knowing very much about the scientific side, and being a liberal arts major and philosophy minor myself) is the front-end interface of sensory information and encoding. What is it that we actually see? When the code is done being translated and has finished all its work, what finally appears on the screen?

Sensory information is unique in that we only have access to our own. While programs can be flawlessly copied and distributed and used by any number of persons, I am unable to transfer my perceptions with 100 percent accuracy to another person. We can look at all the little electrical impulses firing in my brain and map all those out, but until we can transfer those, synapse to synapse, into another person’s brain, that will decode them in the exact manner that my brain will, we will never know exactly how other people see the world.

Which is not to deny the belief that we can come up with an objective understanding of the universe. We are fortunate in that our perceptions seem to be consistent enough with reality that we can discover truth and falsity through our interactions with the world. Of course, our perceptions are far from being 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time. Fortunately, we have the scientific method and other forms of meticulous analysis to compensate for this.

But again, regarding the scientific method, these forms of inquiry deal (or attempt to deal) with the code, the underlying structures of how reality is formed… both in reality and in our minds (as described in cognitive science). The code of reality. It explains sight and sound and touch as a series of electrical impulses, which is not helpful when you’re trying to describe an experience to another person. Science deals with the back-end, but we interact with reality through the front-end, where we actually see, touch and feel our surroundings. Until I can plug another person into my head through a cord and say “it was like this,” and pump my experience into their head, we will always need to find alternative means for communicating our perceptions.

And thus, my interest in writing, photography and music. These activities are the best things we have for communicating our thoughts with one another. I can’t make people feel exactly how I feel (nor is there necessarily any advantage in doing so), but if I hone my skills enough such that I can accurately channel myself into some form of art, I can come close.

Sure, you will never be sitting here on a wooden bridge over a trickling stream, in the middle of the Cascade Range near Lost Lake, breathing in the perfumed air of Oregon in autumn, but if I wanted to I could make a damned good effort to tell you what it’s like. And whether I do that in word, image or song, it would be an encoding of my experience. I would take my current perceptions, that which I wish to communicate, distill it down into a form that bears no resemblance to either my thoughts or the reality creating them, and transfer them over to you.

Reality -> Senses -> Dane’s Brain -> Writing -> Your Senses -> Your Brain

A lot stands to be gained (or lost) through all those changes in format. And, then, what really is the final product? For that matter, what was the starting product? As I look out over this stream, I know I am not seeing reality. I am seeing an image captured by my eyes, translated into electrical signals, decoded in my brain, and made into chemical reactions that stitch together the image. A lot of processing needs to happen, such as stitching together one image from two eyes, that is no small feat.

But then, when I look out over this stream, where are these images coming from? Where in my brain do I sense them? Do I feel the images on my eyes, or in the back of my head, or where? Can I move the image around to other corners of my skull? And I’m talking about actual perception, not where the electrical impulses are firing. My vision needs to exist somewhere, doesn’t it? Where do I perceive that canvas as existing? And what about when I close my eyes and imagine this scene? Or if I keep my eyes open and imagine another scene entirely? I can see it, but where do I see it?

Consciousness seems to extend reality into another dimension. It creates another space in which objects can interact. The objects don’t exist, certainly. But then, these words don’t exist either. They’re just electrical impulses in your brain.