When we go for an eye checkup we are asked to cover one eye and read an eye chart. Most eye charts are a variation of this one.
When we read an eye chart we aren’t seeking to find or confirm information. We are testing what our eyes can clearly see and what blurs into a smudge we can’t decipher. The eye chart, in other words, only tells a very narrow story—how well we can read without making a mistake lines of letters in descending size from a specified distance. If we switch the eye chart to another language, like the chart below, we can still see the images but we can’t read the characters unless we’ve studied Chinese. To give an eye chart to test the vision of a non-Chinese readers would defeat the purpose. No matter how close I stand to the Chinese eye chart I can’t establish the limits of my vision.
Jorge Luis Borges famously wrote an essay (The Library of Babel ) about an infinite library, a paradise thought experiment for any author or reader. An infinite eye chart shares the same essential characteristic—we can never find the bottom row of such an eye chart. This infinite eye chart is a test not only of vision, but how many features you choose to consider when reading the chart. If we stay with eight items on line 8 of an eye chart, can see without the aid of eye glasses and read them out loud at 20 feet or 6.096 meters, we’ve demonstrated our 20/20 vision or 6.096/6.096 vision. We don’t need glasses. Line 8 seems a rather arbitrary place to stop. Why not at line 9 or 10 or 11. The point is, we agree on what makes good vision. We read the letter. We don’t have to explain or describe it. We don’t have to understand anything about it. We respond on a basic level. We rarely question these aspects of the eye chart test.
I wish to adapt the traditional eye chart test into one that tests which line on the chart the person being tested uses to understand a picture or a piece of text. Each line adds another set of factors, expanding the context, widening and exposing the layers and levels of connection. How much complexity can you or your beliefs withstand? My idea of the Infinite Eye Chart is to divide vision into two parts: 1) identifying what we see; and 2) the larger context that infuses what we see with meaning and purpose. Both have a place. But we don’t think much about the second part of vision. The first vision test is the simple picture of a letter unanchored from any other relationship. It floats without meaning in front of our eyes as whole, contained, and absolute. The person testing us doesn’t ask for any meaning. But that changes with the Infinite Eye Chart. In the second test, each as you descend line by line, new meaning and relations among events, objects and people emerge. You no longer see just a letter. You see the outlines of a complex narrative. Social media isn’t the villain. We are the ones who push away the life boat sent to rescue us from the small island of the simple and distorted and delivers you into a more complicated, difficult and uncertain world.
In the era of short-tempers, aggressive tribes, and partisan positions, people tend to stick to the top or second line of the Infinite Eye Chart. Most people don’t feel their vision of the world is compromised or diminished. They assume their way of seeing is 20/20, which means what the brain processes as a 20/20 vision is a good enough understanding to be labelled as normal. This is also assumed to be true right along the political spectrum. From the standpoint of a non-partisan observer, there is little difference in the myopia from the Right and Left. They both hug to line 1 and a few will venture onto line 2. Beyond line 2 reason, deliberation, and thinking kicks in as more elements need to be evaluated, compared, distinguished, with correlations predicted.
Let me give a couple of examples.
The Trump Presidency: A Success Story (US News)
Donald Trump is indisputably the worst president in American history (The Week)
For those on line 1 of the Infinite Eye Chart, the headline and photo are enough. The emotions kick in, a reaction is made, an opinion is confirmed. People who hate Trump will dismiss the article in The Week and those who love him will also not likely read the article in US News. They can see. They can read. But they stay stuck on gut-feeling reaction of the headline and photo. You could run a blank page for the actual article. Only a few people will bother to click and read what the full article says. If they did so, they graduate to line 2 on the Infinite Eye Chart. No one, including myself, is immune from defaulting to line 2 and thinking that is good enough eye sight to see and understand the world.
It’s only when I sit back and wonder how short-sighted I’m being by drawing a picture of reality based on a headline and a photo. Yet I do that very thing. I pretend I see and my friends see the same line, I believe my sight is well above average. When in fact I am driving the emotional bus through a thick fog with only one headlight that flickers on the road. I have to consciously think about how I’m thinking about a piece of information. Is that piece increasing my understanding of reality or confirming what has been manufactured and dispensed as the correct way to see the world? In other words, all my friends who stay at line 2 agree with me that we have 20/20 vision and the other side is legally blind.
Anyone who operates at line 8 (normal vision) is thought to be a genius based on the Infinite Eye Chart. Not because line 8 is close to infinity, because they are dealing with a larger information and knowledge base that places the headline and photo in a much larger context. It seems strange to say, but using the Infinite Eye Chart pushes us to the height of mediocrity as if that were a noble achievement. The reality is there are eight events, objects and theories colliding, reshaping the nature of their relationships with each other over time. Social media speeds up our reading of the eye chart. Your days and nights are headline and photo deep.
The question to ask yourself is whether it is better to know one or two things in depth than dozens of things that brush against the surface and deliver a simplistic reality. Light one candle. Or run through the dark with instinct and desire as your shining light. I also understand after a long day at work, time with your friends and family, and other activities you might shrug off the Infinite Eye Chart as a beautiful idea for those who have the time. But we make time to examine the information flow because it enriches our understanding of life. The poverty of our information makes for an impoverished vision. It’s not enough to ‘feel’ the emotion ricochet around your consciousness. The goal of better personal vision is to understand the meaning and context that are causing you to experience those feelings. In Buddhism it’s called mindfulness. Social media makes the best of mindless, reactive, tribal people taking on the worst characteristics of those we condemn. Stopping the paddling to assess, assemble, compare, test and evaluate means you will miss hours of new headlines and photos, and those are the ones your friends are talking about. These line 2 hits are getting likes and you are stuck with an assessment no one will notice or care about once you write out your line 8 findings.
We face time limits and information flows beyond our capacity to adequately process. We let others do the processing for us. There lies a danger. Someone else is feeding you the result of their Infinite Eye Test and you are accepting the results as your own eye test, and that you’ve passed with flying colors.
What lies beyond line 8 information processing? This line takes time to digest. It forces you to take into account historical events, the experience of other cultures, ideologies, religions, economic patterns, and trade and financial matters. Line 8 works by a process of comparing multiple benchmarks of performance across many different areas and centers a government policy within this context. The limits of power and authority come into focus—you see things that others are seeing. You draw upon the history of powerful leaders and the philosophers and thinkers whose framework broadens your knowledge and evaluative capabilities. History humbles the powerful; they come and go. We are no different than our ancestors. Our age hugs line 2 as if it were a life-line. Each age feels their time and leader is different.
Presentism is that strong tug, the gravity we feel that decouples us from the past, discounts the information others learnt often through bitter experience. We are happy at line 1 or 2 of the Infinite Eye Chart. There is only so much time in a day. We can’t research everything. I know all of the excuses. I’ve used them. But the worm of doubt gnaws at a side of me that knows two things: 1) we can’t get much beyond line 8 on the Infinity Eye Chart and participate on social media with our friends; 2) our cognitive limitations kick at line 11. There is, in other words, no line 12, etc. on the chart. We don’t test eyes beyond a certain level. Likewise we don’t test our information processing beyond line 11 against a wide data base of information. The number 11 is a dismally small number in the world of infinity. Returning to Borges’ infinite library, it would mean that no one can read and process more than 11 titles. And from those 11 volumes they must imagine the rest of the relationship of the infinite library to those 11 volumes.
What lies beyond line 11 on our Infinite Eye Chart?
Because the chart is infinite there is no bottom. There is no way of measuring infinity. Take the mathematical formula for PI, which is usually expressed as 3.14 Fabrice Bellard revealed in 2010 that pi could be calculated to 2.7 trillion digits. That makes for a very long line on the Infinity Eye Chart that takes 85,000 years to read at the rate of one number per second. In the world of infinity, we need to remind ourselves that pi is much closer to line 1 than it is to infinity. But that should not stop us from reaching as far as we can for meaning.
If we want a better understanding of reality, we shouldn’t aim for pi level of non-repeating numbers. What is more reasonable is to move down a line or two. To be more mindful and conscious of the range of risks and the number of variables used to assign risk. We should examine the depth and size of the context in which we find the issue is embedded. As a rule of thumb, the quality and size of your information matters. Information is never static, always expanding, doubling back, revealing new connections, and often filled with junk that seems useful. The payoff is increasing our understanding of how things fit together, the role of chance, the fallacy of assigning agency to all outcomes, and in assessing the possible effect of a decision or a policy staying within or exceeding existing moral boundaries. It is constant adjustment to the information. Letting go of something you believe to be true based on a new information is difficult and frustrating. We have so much information it puts people in a perpetual bad mood. They are overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed.
Once you’ve tried to see reality at line 8, you are likely to experience boredom, exhaustion, and humility. If you’re are a partisan whose beliefs and ideology guide you from headline to headline, what I’ve proposed means that you are likely to suffer cognitive dissonance. That uncomfortable sweaty palms feeling that the devil has sent these contradictory elements to test your faith.
How deep down the rabbit hole do you want to go on the Infinity Eye chart?
85,000 years of reciting pi won’t gain you enlightenment or unlock the mysteries of the universe. You would still be far away from the bottom of the eye chart. We have no glasses to take us to where pi unfolds. Eight to 11 lines of reading our chart seems modest. We certainly wouldn’t call 8 or 11 books a library. None of that matters to us. What does matter, and is in our control, is to move down the chart from time to time to remind ourselves that something smaller, more distant and numerous may offer a window for us to comprehend the edges of reality. Who knows? In fifty years we will all be reading from the Chinese eye chart. That would be a different way of seeing.