“Reality” is the Only Word in the Language that Should Always Be Used in Quotes.

Do you remember playing the telephone game as a kid?  The teacher would say something like, “John is going to Europe for Christmas” to the kid sitting in the front left corner of the classroom.  That kid would whisper the message to the person next to him, and one at a time each successive student would pass the message along.  What happened?  By the time you reached the last student in the class the message was “Christmas in Africa is really hot.”  Why?  Each one of us has our own “reality” that we construct.  No two of us share an identical view of the world, and with those views are variations in what we think is important and what we decide can be discarded.  We shape the message from what is explicitly said to what we want to hear.  When we pass the message along we have put our own “spin” on it.  The problem is the cumulative effect of this: each successive “spin” is really a destruction of the explicit whole that we began with and a creation of a new message.  Why do we do this?

We all have “filters” that color our experience of life and affect the way we perceive the world around us.  I was a theatre Master Electrician and Lighting Designer for many years.  The mantra we lived by on the lighting crew was, “If we have done our job well no one will even know we were here.”  We wanted to generate emotion, setting, time, and a host of other unconscious feelings in the audience to enhance the experience of what they were seeing on stage.  The trick was that if they ever noticed the lighting then they would be snapped out of that critical “willing suspension of disbelief” and the effect would be ruined.  Illumination, shadow, but perhaps most of all color, are the tools of a Lighting Designer (LD) to create these emotions.  No matter the theatrical lighting instrument you use, they all come lamped (theatre electricians will never use the word “bulb”) to emit a fairly normal “white” light (we will ignore color temperature and all that physics stuff for a minute).  If you hang 10,000 watts worth of instruments on the balcony rail and turn them on you get a splotchy mess of glare that washes out peoples features and makes things flat.  So, how does the LD take an incredibly harsh medium and use it to create something beautiful?  He adds filters.

In the lighting design world, filters are thin pieces of plastic (also called Gels) that you place in a frame in front of the instrument to change the quality of a light.  Some are colored, some diffuse the light, making the edges softer, and others perform what is called temperature correction to make an artificial light source look more like natural sunlight. Each filter alters the “real” quality of the light to make it accomplish the specific need of the LD.  Filters also have another effect, an accepted but not sought after one, of reducing the amount of light that actually reaches the stage.  The transmission of light energy is muted by the filter.  If the LD is using particularly deep reds and blues the amount of illumination you get from an instrument can be greatly reduced.  All of these limitations have to be taken into consideration during the design process to achieve the desired altered state of reality.  That’s what it’s all about:  an altered state of reality.  We are telling a story with light and making you believe something that is totally made up.

Know Your Filters

We all apply filters to the information that we observe.  However, unlike the LD who knows exactly what she is doing in altering reality, most of us are ignorant of the filters we are placing between our illuminating sources and that which we are looking to discover.  What is the result of our ignorance about our filters?  We take a “scene” in life that we want to see as a beautiful love story and instead perceive a horror film (Image 1).image1


The words the “actor” is speaking could be the most beautiful of Shakespearian sonnets or the soothing melody of our favorite song, but the emotion we feel will be anything but safe, secure, and loving.  We look at the colors and see something ominous.  Is the color “real” though?  Yes and no.  It is real in that we perceive it, but only because the filter is in place.  The true quality of the illumination has been altered.

Despite the Bard’s analogy about all life being a stage, we cannot merely be actors in our experience of being alive; we must also accept our role as writer, director, stage manager, and designer.  We have to be aware of the filters we are placing in front of the true illumination if we are to see “reality” as close to the truth of what it is, rather than the altered state created by the filter.

It’s All About Orientation

I am a student of the late Colonel John Boyd, USAF (ret.).  Boyd is best known for a decision making model he “created” known as the OODA (think of pronouncing it Ew-Da) Loop. OODA is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, which represents the four key stages that our minds use to make decisions.  (Figure 1)


Fig. 1  The OODA Loop – Click on image for viewing

This model is not a descriptor of how we should make decisions, but rather a concise explanation of how we do make decisions.  We will use the OODA Loop model to explore how we think, how we make decisions, how our decisions influence our actions, and how our actions feed right back into our observations.  Understanding this model on an intuitive level has allowed me to examine my misconceptions and strip away needless filters that I have applied.

We will start with Orientation.  Oh, wait.  There is a hand up.  Yes? Yes?  Oh, I see.  The question was, “Why are we starting with Orientation if Observe is the first step in the loop?”  Excellent question.  Take a look at the diagram that we have.  You will see that coming off of the Orientation function of our model are two arms labeled “implicit guidance and control,” and these are inputs into our observations and our actions.  So, while in a specific circumstance that requires a decision we will begin “formally” creating a decision based on our observations, we cannot loose sight of the fact that our Orientation is affecting what, how, and why we Observe because of the way it filters illumination.  So, let’s break it down.  (Figure 2)orientationFig. 2  The Orientation Phase – Click on image for viewing

In Col. Boyd’s rendering of the Orientation phase of the loop, he (and his colleagues Chuck Spinney and Chet Richards who helped create these graphics) identified five key elements that impact how we Observe, Decide, and Act.  Our genetic heritagecultural traditionsprevious experiences, and our openness to new information all contribute to our ability to analyze and synthesize what is occurring in our environment, how it impacts us, and what we have to do to achieve a desired end state.

The four ovals are the filters we apply, consciously or not, to everything.  This is a pretty dense topic, or as Marty McFly would have said in Back to the Future, “That’s heavy, Doc.”  Don’t let the idea overwhelm you.  I’m going to take the next few articles and lay out each of these filters and what we need to know about them to recognize the filters we apply.

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