Sourdough, Websites, and the Self: The Myth of the Driver's Seat
Our story this week begins around 1500 BC. It was roughly 3500 years ago that somehow––let’s be honest, probably through some kind of accident that doesn’t bear thinking about––Egyptians discovered that a mixture of flour and water, left in the right conditions, could bubble and ferment into a tangy ball of risen dough, and that this ball, when baked, was not only edible but delicious.
In all likelihood, this was the beginning of leavened bread. Sourdough, as we call it today, harnesses yeast at its simplest, its most elemental. All the crucial microbes––the wild yeast and the lactic acid bacteria––already exist in the air around us, floating freely, just waiting for the chance to metabolize some glucose and release pockets of carbon dioxide. All you need for a good starter is flour, water, and a dream. (And the willingness to consume a lot of microscopic critters).
This simplicity led to its appeal among cowboys and other assorted ramblers of the American West. Today in San Francisco, some bakers can trace their starters back to the Gold Rush days. For over a century, descendants of those gourmet microbes have run amok, traveling to kitchens across the globe. It’s a big idea, made up of the simplest units imaginable. Every loaf is leavened by a swarm of vanishingly small creatures, each working independently and yet their actions unite to create a common result. They answer to nobody––no yeast society, no alpha wolf bacteria, not even the board of Panera Bread.
Which, of course, brings us to the Internet. (I will refrain from any mention of Al Gore.) The cultural juggernaut that allows you to sit here and read these words (hi there!) has its origins in a research project authorized by former president Eisenhower in response to the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite. In an attempt to kick computer science into gear, he created the ARPA, or Advanced Research Project Agency. They in turn built an operating system called Arpanet and the rest is history.
So who is in charge of the internet?
No person, no corporation (for Mr. Romney, that last statement might smell of redundancy) nor any government is in control. No Central Council of Royal Internet Grand Poobahs are holding the reins. In other words, the internet operates a lot like sourdough cultures. Both are complex webs of information and processes, driven by environmental influence, spreading and flourishing over the world, and yet with no captain helming the ship.
This all may seem very obvious to you. The idea of bread ingredients or vast systems of webistes operating without a central control doesn’t feel all that strange.
Certainly not as strange as the scene from the movie Men in Black where they crack into the cranium of what looks like a normal person, and inside the skull we find a little alien creature sitting on a throne with its hands on the levers. You might imagine your own circumstances differently, but this idea that there is someone in your noggin that’s in charge, a.k.a. the self increasingly appears to be more fiction that fact.
Neuroscientists believe the idea of Self is a template employed by our rational brain to make sense of a complex set of tiny parts that it doesn’t control. This is why at any given moment, you might display an angry self, happy self, pensive self and so on, sometimes without much seeming to tie them together as the same person. All these elements of the emotional brain appear to (using the Men in Black analogy) take turns at the helm, staying for a few seconds or lingering for hours or days. Robert Ornstein describes this variety of selves euphemistically as your “band of simpletons”.
It can be a pretty large band indeed, depending on your mental state. But no matter who you are, there isn’t one Simpleton that can wield power indefinitely. Eventually another Simpleton elbows their way in and your disposition changes. In short, plenty of musicians are vying for the first chair in your brain, but there’s no conductor in sight.
Your rational mind, the part that we used think was in charge, the part we called self, wields power the same way the usher does at the theater: he may lead you to your seat, but he’s not directing the show. In fact, it is estimated that a mere 2-5% of our brain is conscious and rational, and that tiny portion is at the mercy of the emotional brain running subconsciously in the background––not unlike a piece of operating software that once loaded runs quietly and powerfully behind the curtain.
It’s lunchtime and I’m sitting here in Panera Bread Co. I can’t help but wonder what circuitous route the yeast cultures must have traveled to become my sandwich. My downloaded book will arrive any second in a process that still truly seems like magic, and when my meal is ready, my happiness Simpleton will step up briefly and take his turn at the wheel. But only, after all, for a time; be it sandwich, internet or brain, it turns out control is relative.