Perception as a Skill

Adam Robbert’s new journal, The Side View, is about perception as a skill. I’ve been comissioned to write something for it, so in preparation I want to interrogate that concept a bit.

If perception is a skill, that implies some patterns of attention and conceptual applications are better than others. For what? Skill therefore implies a scale of values. Values don’t exist in a vacuum, they are elements of a plan, a strategy for achieving the good. A strategy bakes in a worldview, and an actor standpoint. I think these otherwise overlooked implications are significant. Let’s investigate.

What does it mean for perception to be a skill?

To start with, there’s no such thing as raw, uninterpreted sense-perception, especially not consciously accessible. There is, strictly speaking, the raw data crossing the retina into the optic nerve. This is as close as we get. That is immediately and heavily pre-processed into conceptualized perception and then a conceptual model of the world before it comes to conscious attention. Concept application is a matter of choice, knowledge, and skill. Further, the input to the retina is itself highly controllable. The eye flits around quickly, taking in a conceptualized view of the world as an active process of creation and seeking. Likewise for other senses.

This leaves us a few immediate handles for skill development: patterns of physical attention direction, concepts, and concept application. Between these, how you pay attention to the outside world is unambiguously a matter of detailed and ongoing skilled choice.

That’s just external perception around the interface itself. There is additionally how you set up your information environment, placing yourself and manipulating your environment to direct your attention to the most important information, and exclude the noise. For example, you might disconnect the internet and place yourself in a locked room with headphones on to really get some work done. This works by tightly controlling what will cross your attention.

Once you’re paying attention to something, there is how you process the information internally, in what patterns of thought you apply, what connections you make, what concepts you try to apply to your thoughts, what imaginations you call up to figure things out, and how you structure your thinking in general.

These are all matters of attention control and perception, and also unabiguously matters of detailed choice, and therefore skill.

So perception is a skill. It involves the direction of attention, and application of concepts, in complex patterns that accomplish some result or other.

Something being a skill immediately implies value judgements. In the case of perception, what is worth paying attention to at what time, in what way? This is because skills involve actions, and actions are always part of a plan, at least implicitly. You act because you judge in that moment that that action is more coherent with your beliefs and expectations about how good things will happen, which constitute an implicit plan, than non-action or some other action. Some will dispute that actions imply plans, but I’m not going to address that here.

To make a value judgment, in this case to act, requires a utility context, a strategy or plan, which gives that thing it’s instrumental value. So perception in some domain as a skill is inextricably linked to our strategy with respect to that domain. What are we trying to do, and why?

A familiar skill is riding a bicycle. Difficult enough to be complex, not so difficult as to be inaccessible.

Our strategy when riding a bicycle is roughly to stay upright, not run into or get hit by anything, stay moving forward at a comfortable level of effort, and navigate along some route. Racing vs travelling vs sightseeing will introduce variation in this strategy. If we stay within the parameters of this strategy, we will get where we’re going faster than walking, or outrun the other guy, and therefore achieve some good thing. We may also have more abstract values attached to cycling, like saving money, staying healthy, being self-sufficient, or reducing carbon footprint. These things, mostly the need for upright motion itself, generate the strategic context against which all the actions and sub-skills of riding the bike are measured.

When riding a bike, we percieve the world in a different way than when walking or driving, our attention moving in different patterns, everything taking on a different significance, even different conceptual parsing.

You take your headphones out to hear. You look over your shoulder merging into traffic, and look ahead for potentially dangerous cars. You feel the force and inertia as you accelerate up to cruising speed, getting an intuitive sense of what gear you’re in and how fast you’re going. You reach down and flip the lever, feeling and hearing the chain move to the next sprocket, and the pedal take on more leverage. You feel the bumps in the road, scan ahead for the smooth spots, and lean slightly as you guide the wheels into a better track. You feel the wind in your hair and the balance of your bike, holding an intuitive sense of your speed and stability that feeds back into your subtle actions. You can’t even feel the actions your arms and body take to steer anymore; the bike just fluently goes where you want it like an extension of your own consciousness. You feel the slight wobble in your rear wheel and the slight vibration in the chain that indicate a loose spoke and worn drivetrain.

There is nothing passive or uninterpreted about your perception, it is an active, optimized, and value-laden participant in the flow of riding. These are not the things you feel and see when you walk the same route.

Generalizing, different arts and fields of study have different fundamental strategies for their domains, that drive different ways of seeing. Divisions between fields may even be defined by these differences; given a common fundamental strategy, detailed technical dialog and consensus is possible. Without commensurability of strategy, the contents of fields are not even speaking to the same questions, even if the ground subject matter is the same. A few insights will be incidentally transferrable between fields with divergent strategies, but this is unrelaible happenstance. Thus one of the biggest questions to ask of a field, or a way of seeing, is its foundational strategic framing.

For example, in physics and its counterpart engineering, we are looking at the world in a practical manner. We are trying to find clear signals of what’s going on, especially examples of relatively pure and simple phenomena, which can be reproduced, characterized, theorized, predicted, and manipulated. We aren’t particularly concerned with how the phenomena make us feel, or what the masses or authorities say about them, or their esoteric symbolism. Physics in past times often did discuss these other aspects. With his laws of motion and gravitation, Isaac Newton was trying to make a point about the beauty of God’s creation, as part of his larger body of theological and alchemical work. The things we pay attention to change as a field develops. Physics and engineering also diverge in the insistence on focus on fundamental essences of phenomena on the physics side, and practical achievability on the engineering side.

When we look at literature on the other hand, how we feel about the work, how it is recieved, and its symbolism are prime concerns.

The particular area where I’m trying to build a new way of seeing, or add to our ways of seeing, is in political thought. How do we see and think about power, the state, the moral and legitimacy structure of society, how individuals relate to the whole, and so on. Much of this is in particular beliefs about what exists and what’s important, and particular value arguments. But even beliefs and ideologies can, and perhaps should be, reframed as skills of seeing, .

My often emphasized belief that power exists, for example, is rather simple on its own. But pulled out at the right time, aimed at the right misconceptions, and deployed as an action, it changes perception substantially. It draws attention to the ways a clever actor can almost always find ways to influence outcomes, and gain more influence. It actively busts much of our naive narratives around certain purported social technologies.

Social technologies are themselves culture, institutions, etc reframed as skills and actions.

Framing these things as skills and actions is deeply related to the postmodern idea of dropping the pretense of value-free objectivity in perception, analysis, description, etc. These things are all inherent actions, taken by agents, using power, for particular purposes, and they carry that with them.

More on all that later.