This is a transcript of Lois’s TEDx talk in Dallas, which was presented on Nov. 12.
How do we humans make sense of the world? As a documentary filmmaker, I was trained to make sense by looking for the telling image. And I discovered one, hiding in plain sight. It was shape itself.
Shape gives us a mental map. It frames the way we organize and orient. Once I looked for shape, I found it everywhere—in the form of shelters, social systems, and sacred sites. If you start to notice shapes and watch when they shift, you can read them as a transition point; when a new way of living, a new way of thinking, has entered. Shape becomes a way to read the past and glimpse the future. So let’s go on a ride through time, watching when shapes shift.
Circles and webs
Shape first popped out for me when I filmed a tribal ritual in Liberia. Women danced in a circle, in the hub of their circular settlement surrounded by round thatched huts. It struck me that the shape hiding in plain sight was a web, circular and interconnected.
Then I realized that the web was the mental map of tribal cultures all over the globe. The shelters of early humans were round grass huts and spheres of bent timber. They built domes of straw and mud, domes of ice, some even made of mammoth bones. Sacred sites also imitated a web—in stone circles, labyrinths, and medicine wheels, and the concentric circles of aborigine rituals. They lived huddled in the rainforest, intricately woven to nature and to each other.
The web mindset was embedded in language as well: In the Dagara tribe of Africa, there was no word for you. A word as basic as the difference between you and me did not exist. The closest translation of their word for you meant my other self. Imagine living in a world where the other is you.
Lines and ladders
How could a world based on the eternal circle of nature possibly change? But it did. The day after I filmed the tribal ceremony, I filmed a military parade in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. I watched soldiers lined row by row, in perfect pods, marching like graph paper being turned. Generals stood in a straight line, reviewing the troops. It struck me that here, the shape hiding in plain sight, was like a ladder—all about hierarchy, linear thinking, and measurement.
A ladder points straight up. Every rung in a ladder is higher or lower than another. It’s a world of right/wrong, yes/no, win/lose. In a ladder mindset, things don’t count if they cannot be counted.
Just as the web was the mindset of early humans, the ladder mindset began to develop in urban times. Ladder-thinking popped up in pyramids all around the world. In Egypt, pyramids pointed to the sun God. In Central America, the same triangles had rounded sides. In Asia, pyramids carried different ornamentation, were dedicated to different Gods, but they still pointed up. Church steeples replaced stone circles. Even God was kicked upstairs, no longer a spirit within the Earth, but an authority above, in the heavens, out of reach. Skyscrapers in the ladder worldview replaced early human’s round huts. Today some skyscrapers are so high, they look down at the clouds.
Nature does not change—the map in our mind changes. How we describe the world inscribes our thinking. I could see the shift from the web to the ladder mindset when I filmed in Abu Dhabi in 1969. Then, it was a tribal sheikdom, just beginning to catapult to the modern world. Sheik Zayed, their leader, asked me, “Will you write this from your head or from your heart.?” My answer was, “Both, I hope.” But his question was more important than my answer: His question was about a world that was turning from qualities to quantities, from meaning to metrics. He guided his culture from a time of nomadic tents to global tentacles.
The shift in our mental maps permeates science as well. You probably learned the periodic table of elements as a grid. But the same sequence of elements can also be drawn as a helix, or loops, or a donut shape. Nature does not change—the map in our mind changes. How we describe the world inscribes our thinking.
So what shape describes today ? Networks are our mental map. This is a map of one website connecting to 10,000 websites. It looks like the big bang. Networks are full of reverberations. We know all parts connect in links and nodes, but we cannot predict what will happen from the reverberations. Pattern and the unpredictable are both at play.
The internet is our answer for everything: knowledge, banking, shopping, socializing. We are so imbued with networks, we even impose it on biology. It’s the way we map neurons in our brain. It’s our picture of how bacteria colonize, in a wild variety of network shapes. The current generation even thinks by hyperlinks and associative thinking, not linear logic. If we change our mental map, we change our thinking.
When I was in China, a military official asked my opinion of the American/Chinese relationship. My answer was, “Chopsticks. It takes two forces in careful balance, to feed yourself and feed your country.” Our mental map had been focused on opposing forces. But if you expand your view, opposing forces turn into common purpose. The picture of Earth from space shows us our common home. Our mental map zooms out to a larger lens. Even while we see messy swirls in weather patterns and whirls in ocean currents, we know that there is careful balance in nature’s systems—like eating with chopsticks.
We’ve gone from seeing the world as a woven web to a linear ladder to a reverberating network. So what’s next ? What new shape can hold differences, diversity, dynamic change, the way nature itself does?
Living in new shapes reshapes our thinking. There is a hotel in China built as an upright ring, upending expectations. It is full of opposites. The two sides of the hotel actually connect underwater. So it is both above water and below water. Its interior rooms have exterior views. If you wandered inside, your perspective would continuously change. Yet when you zoom out and view the entire building at once, what were opposites snap together in a larger elegant whole.
Living in new shapes reshapes our thinking. The shape of this ring is called a torus, a donut shape. Nature invented the shape long before our buildings. A torus is the shape of the magnetic field around our bodies, the shape of the magnetic field around Earth. Some physicists think the universe itself is a spinning torus. Picture yourself bursting out of the center—you would see an expanding universe. Now picture yourself folding back into the center at the other end. You would see a contracting universe. The shape simultaneously expands and contracts. It holds opposites in a larger balance.
The trick of our time is to enlarge our lens, multiply perspectives, include opposites. Then, what looked like chaos, becomes pattern. What looked like opposing forces becomes balance. The blur of accelerated change, snaps to the beauty of the big picture. So start to see when shapes shift, and you may catch the next telling image.