I describe two patterns here, one from the domain of the social, the other from the domain of the sacred. I discuss them together because they are of the same shape; the shape, or form, that they share is also shared with the human self.
This is the visual form of the shape: [my drawing, adapting Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language (1977), Pattern 66: Holy Ground (p. 334)]
The first pattern described by this shape is a common (perhaps invariant) form across many cultures for encountering the sacred. Alexander’s Holy Ground, above, calls for the preservation of the sanctity of Sacred Sites (Pattern 24) with a specific architecture: “a series of nested precincts, each marked by a gateway, each one progressively more private, and more sacred than the last, the innermost a final sanctum that can only be reached by passing through all of the outer ones.”
This pattern is also seen, to similar effect, in Beijing’s Forbidden City, with its awesome and exhausting approach of nested gates, gardens, and halls, a “magic show” that concealed within a rather mundane group of human beings.
The sacred is approached only through successive boundaries of porous exclusivity. This experience may be necessary to facilitate the experience of the sacred. “The organization is so powerful,” Alexander says hopefully, “that to some extent it can itself create the sacredness of sites, perhaps even encourage the slow emergence of coherent rites of passage” (Pattern 66). The pattern at least makes it possible for rituals to emerge.
The second pattern, united with the first pattern in its shape, is a pattern in human social organization. It is that people need to be provided with many degrees of public and private, a gradient of intimacy occupied by progressively intimate groups. The binary of public and private is not enough; just as we must have progressively intimate realms to approach the sacred, we need progressively intimate realms to express our social selves. Porous exclusivity characterizes each layer of the structure.
This meta-pattern finds form in many specific architectural patterns. Pattern 13 Subculture Boundary and Pattern 15 Neighborhood Boundary define realms of intimacy at the neighborhood level. 98 Circulation Realms describes a cognitive reason we might want building complexes in this shape: they are easy for the mind to grasp, and easy to give directions within them. 158 Open Stairs, 112 Entrance Transition, and 88 Street Cafe provide connection, as well as comfortable porous exclusivity, between the street realm and indoor realms. 36 Degrees of Publicness, 111 Half-Hidden Garden, and 127 Intimacy Gradient illustrate this pattern within and around residences, down to the room level. These layers of porous boundaries allow overlapping social groups of progressive intimacy to flourish; it is the architecture of comfortable peopling.
In low-trust societies that are not functioning well, these layers of porous boundaries must be barred and locked. People are left with a binary choice between a vulnerable “public” that is exposed to all, and a socially dead “private” that is disconnected from others (whether inside a home or vehicle). Unfortunately, the internet has mirrored the trajectory of the society at large. Beginning as a set of overlapping zones (and communities) with distinct character and porous exclusivity, it increasingly resembles the binary public/private of our built environment. Search algorithms and unlimited computing resources mean that every communication that is not explicitly private is functionally public, in the most global way that has ever been possible. Facebook and Google+ have features that rationally appear to be circles of progressive intimacy; the audience for a given communication may be limited to one’s friends, family, or other circle or group. Theoretically, this might support groups of porous exclusivity, but I think the choice to collapse each person’s identity into a single “character” (e.g. Google’s erstwhile “real names” policy) is enough to destroy the pattern. In all social media, the service provider finds many ways to encourage users to add new acquaintances – new watchers, to be ominous – gradually making communications increasingly public.
These virtual boundaries are maintained by inscrutable corporations, are constantly changing, and cannot be relied upon. They tend to move in the direction of extreme publicness. Twitter, for years an unexpected jewel of social interaction, has moved toward making its distinct functions – the retweet and the favorite – more like each other, in the direction of the more public retweet. Making one’s account private and speaking via direct messages put one behind a non-porous boundary; the only other option is speaking publicly, and it is increasingly public indeed. It is not the semi-private, high-trust place for the development of ideas that it once was.
Are sacred experiences possible on the internet? Even if the pattern of nested precincts with thresholds is realized (as it is, for instance, in many video games, to great effect), there is still the matter of a source of sacredness to approach. Mostly on the internet we read, talk to people, listen to music, watch videos, or play games – interacting exclusively with other people and their creations. These activities are not common in sacred spaces, in which something transcending the merely human is sought. But in many of our minds, perhaps, suggestions of mystical power still attach to the old-fashioned notion of Cyberspace. Perhaps enough minds secretly expect an inhuman, nascent intelligence to look back at us (though preferably not quite slouching toward Bethlehem to be born). To experience the sacred requires mystery.
The pattern so far described is also reflected in the human self — the human self being literally the reflection of one’s social spheres. According to Philippe Rochat, we are “constrained toward (self-)consciousness” by other people in our environment (Others In Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, 2009). We must keep others in mind, model their cognition and emotion, in order to monitor our reputation and simulate future scenarios involving them. We see ourselves through the eyes of others, adding a third-person perspective to our first-person experience. And the self, properly located, exists not deep within us, but in between ourselves and others.
The social context – the role we are in, the others we are interacting with and exposed to – determines the information, memories, and behaviors our minds have access to. This is revealed in word-completion tasks, but may sometimes be detected through introspection. We are different selves with different minds depending on the audience. If there is a unified authentic self, it exists between and among these many context-adapted selves, in the transformation from self to self, rather than in any one of them. To collapse the many selves into one is not to realize authenticity, but to destroy oneself.
With selves, as with the architecture they exist in, the binary choice between public and private is not adequate. A completely public self is a play-acted character; more intimate selves, performed for closer circles, are more crucial to the project of peopling. More public selves, while more “porous” and open to making new connections, are also more vulnerable to criticism and other negative information about themselves. Negative information about the self causes painful shame (even seeing oneself in the mirror for the first time – see Rochat, pp. 30-31), forcing one out of the idealized first-person perspective of the self and toward a much harsher third-person view of the self. It is no exaggeration to say that the present generation experiences more of this socially-reflected negative information about the self than any generation that has previously lived on earth. Roy Baumeister has argued that the shameful weight of the modern self — unprecedented pain of self-awareness — drives us to try to escape ourselves though hobbies like alcoholism, suicide, sadomasochistic sex, evangelical religion, and binge eating.
Can any guidance be found from deep within the self, as is our modern expectation? Unfortunately, the innermost sanctum, in this case, is quite empty. Christopher Knight, the man who lived without human contact in the Maine woods for 27 years, agreed with Rochat that the experience of the self seems to exist only in relation to others:
“I did examine myself,” [Knight] said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”
Most of us could not stand austere, complete freedom like this. We require social interaction, and to accomplish this, we need social forms that can connect us together without collapsing us individually. The world inside the mind reflects the world outside the mind. We can’t have ancestral lives (nor would we necessarily want them), but if we can incorporate ancestral patterns into our strange new lives through ostension, these patterns may help us coordinate with each other as well as manage the weight of our own consciousness.