I’ve been reflecting on the concept of humanity’s “low-pass filter” lately, following up on my previous post on the state of computer science education today. Quoting Alan Kay, again:
One could actually argue—as I sometimes do—that the success of commercial personal computing and operating systems has actually led to a considerable retrogression in many, many respects.
You could think of it as putting a low-pass filter on some of the good ideas from the ’60s and ’70s, as computing spread out much, much faster than educating unsophisticated people can happen. In the last 25 years or so, we actually got something like a pop culture, similar to what happened when television came on the scene and some of its inventors thought it would be a way of getting Shakespeare to the masses. But they forgot that you have to be more sophisticated and have more perspective to understand Shakespeare. What television was able to do was to capture people as they were.
The bold characters are my emphasis. The term “low-pass filter” is an electronics term for a circuit that reduces frequencies that are above an arbitrary cut-off point. I was inspired to use this term here by the quote above. What I’m talking about here is an expansion of what Kay was talking about. It’s my sense that a lot of people have felt overwhelmed by the technological innovation that’s been going on, and a lot of what’s going on in the world, generally. Take the way that people have been tricked into giving up private information via. phishing e-mails, or the way young children have been lured online by sex predators, right under the noses of parents, or at a more mundane level, the way IT is so often mismanaged, as a few examples. We deal with this by applying a “low-pass filter” to the information we receive about the causes of this stuff, because we lack the mental capacity to do otherwise. This isn’t to say it has to be this way. I explain below a theory that says the reason for the “low-pass filter” is that we lack a sufficient symbolic model of our world to comprehend it. The problem with having a “low-pass filter” in place is that we ignore things that could help us deal with our world better.
I recently watched the movie “Contact” for the umpteenth time on TV. Given what I’ve been studying lately it was an interesting experience. There are some people I know who didn’t like this movie at all, thinking it was too predictable, with a disappointing ending. I thought it was a great movie. It came out 10 years ago, starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, among other stars. I think it’s amazing it even got made considering the subject was science, science vs. religion, the search for alien intelligence, etc. It wasn’t some fantastic sci-fi movie with aliens coming to invade. It was about taking a serious look at the search for alien intelligence, what it would mean to humanity if we actually established contact, and of course dramatizing it.
I’ll assume you’ve already seen the movie. What follows contains spoilers. You have been warned… If you want to skip this, go to the bottom of the article.
“Contact” as an allegory for the “low-pass filter”
I always thought it was neat the way jokes were thrown into it, like once the anouncement about the alien message was made, all of the “nutcases” show up at the VLA site and it turns the place into a carnival atmosphere, complete with goofy music like “One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple-People-Eater.” I could actually imagine that happening, were this to occur in reality.
You can always tell good art when you discover deeper layers below the surface. Beginning with that “carnival” scene I noticed, with all of the characters, varying degrees of misunderstanding. I used to get that with the common folks, and some of the political figures in the film. I expected them to be ignorant of the subject. What I saw this time was that there was nobody who completely understood what was going on, and that this had a profound effect on their perception. I could see hints of it everywhere, where I didn’t see it before. It was mostly in what the characters said. I also noticed that where Arroway (the scientist) and her fellow researchers spoke in the language of science (and the optimism of it in the case of Arroway), everyone else spoke in the language of intuition and emotion, even her “man of the cloth, without the cloth” boyfriend. This often befuddles and disarms her. The message that gets repeated again and again, is that even though she is practically the smartest person in the room (mentally), she is impotent, because there is no common symbolic language they can communicate in, between her and everyone else. Often Drumlin, the national science advisor, has to step in and “translate” what she’s saying so everyone else gets it. He is kind of her “low-pass filter” to the world. Drumlin wins the right to go on the first flight, primarily because he knows how to communicate in terms that most people understand. He, and the machine the world worked so hard to build, ends up being destroyed by people who operate on baser emotional and intuitive instincts. But this isn’t the end of the story. It turns out another machine was built in secret. Arroway gets the chance to go and she takes it.
As time passes in the story, the gap between reality and what most people know, even Arroway, widens. It begins with the discovery of the “blueprints” for a machine in the alien message. Dozens of scientists try for days to decode them, but with no success. Finally some mysterious benefactor, Hadden, comes along and demonstrates privately to Arroway the decoding technique he’s discovered for it. Of all the characters, he’s the “smartest man in the room.”
With a lot of hand waving, the machine in the decoded specs is built. Everybody admits, “We don’t even know what it does,” and there’s speculation that maybe it will send the passenger off at the speed of light…er…or something.
Finally, when a successful launch is made, right from the start, Arroway has no idea what’s going on. Her ship finally gets to the intended destination, and…the scenery somehow looks familiar, and…she meets what looks like her deceased father. The alien presence tells her, “We thought it would be easier this way.” In other words, she got the alien version of “the low-pass filter.” She says, “People must see what I’ve seen!” The alien tells her that small steps must be taken, and no evidence of their meeting would be given to her. Though Foster expresses it subtly, I could tell that Arroway is frustrated and disappointed. The explorer in her wants to see and know more. The scientist in her wants to bring back evidence. But, as is also evident, her mind is blown by what she’s been through. She can barely comprehend it. Though the alien presence she meets with doesn’t say it, it may also know that the comprehension of her civilization back home is a hundred times worse.
She is sent back home, and lo and behold, the people there don’t understand anything of what happened. Their sensors are inadequate to the task. The people waiting at home go by their first impression, which is that she didn’t go anywhere. Nevermind that by the time her pod reaches the bottom of the machine she is out of her chair that the people on the ground insisted she sit in at the launch, and that it is smashed against one side of the pod. How did that happen? When she was first launched the command center on a heavy sea cruiser was lurched to one side by whatever force the machine was generating. How did that happen? Nobody asks. What they can relate to is what their cameras saw, and the fact that Arroway’s recording unit only recorded static.
Since they did not see what they expected to see, the perception builds that it was all a big hoax. At a public hearing, she struggles to communicate what happened. Even she can’t completely comprehend it. The best she can come up with is that maybe a wormhole was opened via. an Einstein-Rosen bridge effect, created by the machine. But she does not know for sure. The panel interrogating her is baffled by her story. They do not understand it at all, and since she brought back no direct evidence of alien contact, they are frustrated. A theme that comes up a few times in the movie is taking things “on faith.” This comes up again. “Should we take your story on faith,” one panelist asks. The best that anyone on the panel can do to explain it all to themselves is come up with a conspiracy theory, involving Hadden, using Occam’s Razor–a favorite frame of reference for Arroway. I found this scene interesting. In the real world I’ve seen people come up with conspiracy theories when faced with situations where they feel disempowered and have little comprehension of how they are being affected by events beyond their control. It seems to be something that people are wired to do when faced with this situation. They generate their own myths. In my opinion, this particular behavior, believing in conspiracies with no direct evidence, is a sign of weakness. For all their bluster, the people on the panel in the movie showed the same weakness. In this case, I could feel some compassion for the panelists, because they lacked the necessary symbolic knowledge to comprehend what had transpired. Arroway has an inkling of what happened, but not enough to educate them.
I’ve heard this saying before, and it’s never failed me: “If people do not understand something, they don’t think it’s important.” I’ve noticed this tendency as well: If something is completely beyond our understanding, our brain tends to just completely ignore it as if it doesn’t exist.
I’ve heard this story (not sure if it’s true or not) that when European ships first appeared off the coast of North America that the Indians did not see them until they were in view for a few hours (or up very close–I forget), because they had never seen such a big boat with sails before. It wasn’t that the Indians were short sighted or otherwise distracted. They were, at first, unable to comprehend what they were seeing, and so their brains just ignored the information.
In the movie Arroway ends her quest for alien contact. She’s been there, done that. Instead she decides to “come back to Earth,” as it were, and just do what every other astronomer had been doing before this whole fiasco got started: basic research. She’s shown educating some schoolchildren on a field trip. One asks, “Are there aliens out there?” She asks, “What do you think?” The student says, “I dunno,” shrugging his shoulders. She says encouragingly, “That’s a good answer.” The implicit message is, “The world is not ready for this yet.” Even though she was ready to receive messages from intelligent life, the rest of the world was not. She isn’t in denial about the whole thing. She knew what happened. She just realizes it’s not wise to share it with people who cannot comprehend the experience.
On the surface, the movie appears to say that science and religion are close cousins, because a common link between Arroway and her religious boyfriend is that they’ve both had transcendant experiences that only they know about, and that no one else can understand. Both seek answers to life’s questions, and both can bring startling revelations to those who pursue these disciplines. I get that message, and I think it’s a beautiful one. On the other hand, what I got this time was it’s a cautionary tale about pursuing knowledge which you and society, if the knowledge affects it, are not prepared for. I think the movie was also saying that pursuing contact with alien intelligences, if they exist, is a dangerous business because we humans do not have the necessary mental and social sophistication to deal with that scenario.
The reality of our technological present
There’s a video online called “Education in the Digital Age”, with Alan Kay, made in 1998. In it he says:
“Less than 1% of our entire population in the U.S. are scientists and engineers. It’s from them that we get all of the technology and all of the new ideas, and stuff. And [the technology is] so powerful, and the technology to spread it is so powerful, that less than 1% of the population could sustain the illusion that we are a scientific society. Our artifacts are everywhere, but most people, as Neil Postman said once, have to take more things on faith now in the 20th century than they did in the Middle Ages. There’s more knowledge that most people have to believe in dogmatically or be confused about, but in fact the number of people who actually understand this new knowledge is maybe 5% or 10% of the population.”
My emphasis in bold.
I’ve been reading The Myth of the Machine: Technics And Human Development, by Lewis Mumford. It talks about his own analysis of the way in which humans develop technology. His theory is that the progress of humanity cannot be measured by the technology we’ve developed, but rather by the symbolic and cultural structures we have developed in our brains, as a society. He goes on to say that technology is an enabler of human development. It is not the cause of human development. I think “Contact” spells this out as well.
What is the point of this post, you might ask. The overall theme of what I’m communicating here, mostly by allegory, and a little by fact, is that our circumstance in the world is progressing faster than our collective ability to understand it, and that there are advantages to us as a people to broadening the number of people who are highly educated, and who love learning. I just hope our educational system is up to the task of doing this. I hope beyond hope that our society will embrace learning, and broaden its field of vision.
I am also saying that technology is not the solution to our problems. It is a part of the solution, but we are part of the solution as well. Technology is an enabler of what we understand and do. Technology is not powerful enough to change us. It can change our habits, but it won’t make us a better society. That part is our job. It’s all in how we use technology, and that requires some understanding of how it works and what it is good for.
Edit 4/17/07: When I wrote this post the video I referenced, “Education in the Digital Age”, had disappeared from Google Video for some reason. I checked and it’s now back online. I encourage readers to take a look at it. It’s about a 1/2-hour in length. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but Kay delves into more detail on what I’m talking about here.
The theme of this video is that for thousands of years humans have been fooled into thinking that reality is based on their sensory perception of the world, and that in the last few hundred years some have realized that if you get beyond this there is a richer world that is actually much more reliable. The key is to get students to get beyond their perceptions and to become powerful thinkers. The computer, used as a medium, can play a key role in this.
As usual with Kay, he gets into society itself, how it works, and what he thinks would be more ideal. He said for thousands of years people lived in a “village culture.” Children learned from their parents, which is very natural for them. He said schools were invented to create a bridge between the village culture and the wider, more sophisticated culture that was developing at the time. Kay acknowledges that this sophisticated culture was (and is) artificial. It would not exist if humans were purely left to their own devices, and sensory perceptions. In this more sophisticated culture higher skills are needed. In order to maintain itself, the more sophisticated culture needed to (and still needs to) draw children out of the village culture. In fact, one of the dangers he sees with the internet is that it will create a “global village (culture).” He says what he wants to create is a global civilization (ie. artificial and sophisticated, and global in scope).
Originally schools were the means for this artificial culture to replenesh itself with new leaders and thinkers, as the old ones died off. What he said 9 years ago in this video is that schools as they currently exist are inadequate to the task. In the video he’s unsure of how to continue this evolution. He suggests that maybe, using the computer and the internet as essential tools, a new educational model could be brought forth where children do their own learning. I imagine most teachers would act as testers and guides in this model, testing students’ knowledge, providing guidance so that students don’t meander into areas that will not serve them well, and challenging them to keep learning, if they need encouragement. Some teachers would still be needed to impart knowledge, in my opinion, though what they would probably do is take current research and “digest it” for the students, so it’s easier to understand. It would be important to really try to bring in people who love learning and teaching. They would be the best people to teach students how to learn, which is itself an acquired skill, despite some of it being innate.
The sense that I got from Kay is the challenge in education today is to get students to really challenge themselves, to think about hard problems and solve them. This is a necessary skill for our civilization, because not all problems are easy. All you need to do is look at what we as a country are dealing with here at home, and in the rest of the world, to see this.