Ziya Tong is one of the world’s most engaging science journalists. In her new book, The Reality Bubble she takes a ground-breaking look at the hidden things that shape our lives in unexpected, dangerous and profound ways. Ziya Tong serves on the Board of the WWF, and is Vice Chair of WWF Canada. She anchored Daily Planet, Discovery Channel’s flagship science programme, until its final season in 2018. Tong also hosted the CBC’s Emmy-nominated series ZeD, PBS’ national prime-time series, Wired Science, and worked as a correspondent for NOVA scienceNOW.
Our naked eyes see only a thin sliver of reality. We are blind in comparison to the X-rays that peer through skin, the mass spectrometers that detect the dead inside the living, or the high-tech surveillance systems that see with artificial intelligence. And we are blind compared to the animals that can see in infrared, or ultraviolet, or in 360-degree vision. These animals live in the same world we do, but they see something quite different when they look around.
This vitally important new book shows how science, and the curiosity that drives it, can help civilization flourish by opening our eyes to the landscape laid out before us. Fast-paced, utterly fascinating, and deeply humane, The Reality Bubble gives voice to the sense we’ve all had — that there is more to the world than meets the eye.
In this exclusive interview, I speak to Ziya Tong about humanity’s biggest blind spots. We talk about our biology and how technology is revealing a world beyond our senses. We explore our civilisational blind spots, how they shape our society – and how we collectively remain blind to some of the most important aspects of our world.
Q: What are reality bubbles?
[Ziya Tong]: Especially with Covid-19, people have become very familiar with bubbles. I would never have expected that there would be people dining in bubbles or spending time in social isolation bubbles. What’s more interesting however, is when you look at human perceptual bubbles. Our senses allow us to perceive, but they’re incredibly limited. Science sees far beyond our human blind spots, and the reaches of this ‘bubble’ our senses create for us. When you’re in a bubble, you inhabit a form of fictional reality, and we’ve seen the dangerous consequences of this in financial bubbles, stock market bubbles, real estate bubbles… If you’re not paying attention reality comes crashing in. You may also have heard a meme on the internet which suggests that at the start of every horror movie is a scientist whose warning is being ignored… i wanted to channel a lot of what scientists were telling me because they have a spectrum of views, multiple lenses, different ways of seeing the world… Beyond our human perceptual ability.
Q: Do we need bubbles?
[Ziya Tong]: All beings- all living things- have their own algorithms and methods of pattern recognition. Humans fundamentally have the same brains as our ancestors did 200,000 years ago. Without a filtering mechanism we would be overwhelmed with the magnitude and enormity of the data around us. Our ways of perceiving the world are really quite limited, so to survive the coming centuries, it’s necessary for us to expand our bubbles – and sometimes even burst them.
Q: Do we understand ourselves?
[Ziya Tong]: There are many different ways of looking at what we are. We’re outnumbered by bacteria 1.3:1, we’re slightly more bacteria than we are human (though few of us will see ourselves that way). We’re also stardust (as Carl Sagan and many other notable astrophysicists have pointed out). We are also 60% water, and that water in our bodies is billions of years old; it’s been the clouds, the bottom of the sea, waves, streams and everything in the cycle. At an atomic level, 98% of the hydrogen in our bodies came from the bigbang. We’re incredibly ancient beings, perhaps we should see ourselves as aliens!
Q: What is the role of our understanding of scale and space in the creation of our perceptual bubbles?
[Ziya Tong]: We’ve chopped up scale, space and time to human size. We’ve chopped them up into measures that we understand, and we live our lives by those measures. We used to wake-up in the morning with the rising sun and fall asleep at dusk. Today- billions of us wake up because satellites beam a time signal to our phones. We’ve created an orchestrated synchrony that exists because of a long process of how we’ve shaped time and space.
Another example of our relationship to space can be seen in buildings. In London, you have these ghost-mansions where people own immense amounts of space. Contrast that with places like Hong Kong and China where there are people living in spaces literally the size of coffins.
Even our understanding of time is changing. Modern day stockbrokers perceive time in a way that can be imperceptible to us. High frequency trading happens at such a pace that by the time a stockbroker looks at a quote, it’s like looking at a star that burned out thousands of years ago.
We’ve adapted time and space into concepts and constructs that we can live by, and tangibly interact with.
Q: Is personhood a bubble?
[Ziya Tong]: We are governed by fictions. In North America, corporations got rights before women. We have fictions (like corporations) that have more personhood, more legal rights, than rivers and streams. Now we have new ordinances coming out such that (for example) a river in New Zealand and a part of the Amazon Basin are getting personhood.
Q: Why do we have wilful blindness?
[Ziya Tong]: In the 21st century, there are cameras everywhere except for where our food and energy come from, and where our waste goes. We are the most powerful species. In the world, but we remain blind to the fundamentals that allow us to survive. How are we blind to our life support system?
We don’t want to see things that essentially disgust us. Death, disease, sickness and all those things are kept at the margin of society… it makes sense… we don’t want seeping wounds and dead bodies everywhere. It’s also why we’ve moved abattoirs far away… the infrastructure of power… wind turbines… solar farms… we deem a lot of that ugly as we do the smell of the waste we produce. The problem of course, is that these things get cognitively distilled as we put them further away – and it’s caused us to have some pretty significant blind spots. Sometimes our legislature even encourages these blind spots. Here in Canada, a whole series of ‘AG-GAG’ laws are even making it illegal to film and photograph in factory farms and food production.
We generate billions of tonnes of waste every 24 hours. When you put your stuff in the bin, a garbage man comes and rolls it away and its gone… you flush the toilet and it’s gone… in other parts of the world, our waste production is getting so problematic that they’re having to divert aircraft around waste dumps.
Q: Can awareness of our blind spots change our actions?
[Ziya Tong]: Having awareness of the things we have been blind-to can stimulate change. One of the most exciting things in the world for me right now is cellular agriculture. There’s a wonderful video online where they have a chicken called Ian- a perfectly happy chicken- they took a fallen feather from Ian, extracted some stem-cells from that feather, and grew them in a bioreactor. You then see the scientist team sitting around a picnic table eating their chicken sandwiches whilst Ian is happily walking around – they’re eating Ian for lunch, but he’s walking around perfectly unharmed! They decoupled the files from the animal. The impact of these innovations is huge when you start to look at the amount of methane emissions, water use and animal abuse that are linked to agriculture.
We have turned life into a business model- and have somewhat forgotten the reciprocity we have with nature rather; we just see it as a resource. We have maintained societies for thousands of years based on a reciprocal relationship with nature, and we need to get back to that and need to have respect for our fellow earthlings rather than seeing them as products.
Having a sense of where our food and energy come from… where our waste goes… those are critical cycles, right? Food is the cycle of life, energy is the cycle of death, and waste is the cycle of rebirth. If we don’t understand those cycles and if we hijack them in the way that we have, it will do a tremendous amount of damage.
Q: Can it help us to see the bubbles around us?
[Ziya Tong]: We need to change our perspective, and to think outside the status-quo. Seeing bubbles and how we’ve chopped up time, space and scale can help us to do that. I grew-up in Hong Kong and we had 7-Elevens which were open from 7am to 11pm. There was a functioning division (then) between day and night- we didn’t live in a 24-hour capitalist cycle as we do now. We’re using our energies day and night; how incredible would it be if we just turned off the lights at night. It may just open our eyes… In the 1990s, Los Angeles was affected by rolling blackouts. The Griffith Observatory and Police started getting all these people calling-in because they were concerned about a bright, glittering, orb in the sky. It was the Milky Way! The light pollution of the city meant that people hadn’t seen it before, and hadn’t been able to have a sense of awe about the scale of the universe we live in. Taking the night-back would help us, but it would also help the insects and birds who have difficulty migrating because of our new cycles. It would also give us back the stars.
We don’t always see change and activism from the perspective of what we’re giving, it’s too often about taking things away…. Don’t eat that… don’t do that… don’t drive that car… we have to reframe and rethink. Imagine if we told people we could give them the universe back, it’s a beautiful gift- but also allows us to save energy, birds, insects and more. It’s not taking anything away from us.
Q: How can reframing our bubbles help us become changemakers?
[Ziya Tong]: Right now, I’m working on lots of diversity initiatives and it’s clear that we require an axiomatic shift in thinking. We have a tendency to want diversity in companies because of compliance…. The shift is to realise that diversity is a good strategy– studies have proven time after time that more diverse organisations are more creative, more innovative and more profitable. We need to look at what we’re gaining, not what we’re losing.
We also have to look at the ownership bubble. We live in a world where we’re constantly accruing things and wanting more. What does it mean to own something anyway? Ownership is a construct. If you go to the beach and pick up a seashell, it would be yours. If you walk by a stand where someone else had collected some seashells, you couldn’t just pick one up and claim it. If you go into a store- nothing belongs to you but once you pick something up or buy a cup, magically that possession is now yours. The sensation of ownership comes registers in the part of your brain that deals with personal experience, autobiographical memory.
This idea of ownership is so crucial in culture. William James was the first to talk about the notion- and today happiness starts do depend on those objects because we’ve become so attached to them. When people get too attached it even becomes a pathology, hoarding.
It would be the saddest thing to realise- on your deathbed- that you’ve spent your life trying to accrue things without realising that it’s not worthwhile. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could realise this a bit earlier, and shift sentiments and moral culture?
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Ziya Tong]: Legacy is something we all need to sit down and ponder for ourselves. It’s related to recognising that we’re sentient beings, that the world around us is also sentient and that we have a duty to respect and recognise our fellow earthlings. We cannot commodify nature and animals. If you go to a supermarket, and you’re at the check-out, all you hear is beeps and all you see is prices- that’s life. We talk about life as being precious, we need to treat it as such.
For me, it would be really wonderful, a great, achievement, if in some way I could start to decouple perspectives so that we can start to recognise life as being precious and start to live in a world where life is not commodified. That would be my greatest wish.