Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 9 – “Visual and hypertextual representations allow argument to emerge, rather than be stated- Part 4.”

Anyone who has felt the culture shock of living for a prolonged period in a society with different attitudes to the purpose of life and different ideas as to how to relate to people will be aware of the difficulties that would be involved in relating to any intelligent alien, or to how we may adjust visiting and living a while in an entirely alien world.

Just how we approach ‘the other’ often shows much effort and energy gets put into calibration and variance. Just how varied it is for us to accommodate and calibrate derives from lead-distinctions held within our normal frames of reference, our interpretative abilities and capacities to understand and empathise with the stories, arguments and claims of these ‘others’.

“Language and its more permanent sister, literature, attest to the existence of that which we call consciousness in ourselves and in others. Literature springs from that ability which most defines us as humans: language. Language could be said to be the truest indication and reflection of consciousness, since consciousness is shot through with and almost indivisible from language. Our innermost thoughts reverberate with unsaid words, fleeting fragments of supposition, memories, plans. Literature is consciousness rendered portable and transferable, a potent key to the nature of consciousness, its fellow traveller since the dawn of recorded thought. The origins of language, the use of symbols, and the flourishing of literature are intertwined in a single braid.” Goohan, 2011)

These are subjectivities and the basis for inter-subjectivity, basically having an idea of how and what others are thinking which rests upon what we have acquired or learned. That’s how we get to rationalisations regarding particular gestures, arguments and proposals, even symbols and unravelling motives that we can barely understand. We reply on language for the sharing of experience, even for the generation of experience. As Wittgenstein suggested “To imagine a language means to imagine a form of (life.”Philosophical Investigations §19)

It is also how we get to designs which we think will be good for our consumer and users. It’s how ethical governments work in shaping new policies which will serve the nation. It’s how questions are set for exams. Unpicking just what the benefits are of engaging in communication makes a real difference to communication possibilities. Whether replying, responding, or pressing a hypertext link at all is a good idea worth energy. Do we lift a keyword and follow this fork? What about these ‘likes’ of this person on Facebook, are they worth or worthy of our attention?

It nice to be nice, but beyond being simply polite, bowing and smiling our way through a strange town or culture, our capacity to respond adequately or properly to an foreign or alien environment and its inhabitants is continually hampered and compromised. To be successful at all we can rely upon their benevolence and shirk off little misdemeanours to the way they do things there with ‘ignorance of the law is a viable excuse’. We can even become like clowns donning a red nose as we try to ape the local, and making locals smile in this process. Wittgenstein points out in the investigations that when a child smiles at us, we cannot be sure it is not lying in order to learn what the (m)other’s reaction to the lie might be. Prejudice, fear, stereotyping, various bias which has suffused into us subtlety throughout life. It is also overtly stated in myths and eventually confirmed to others of our kind that needs our guidance. It depends upon our biography, the cultural values we have acquired, including all the anthropological categories like social bonds, tribal, racial, kinsmen, nationalistic and organisational tendencies amongst others which we subscribe. Then there is our formal education and interests such sports, fashion, art, music, literature, it depends also on our class, mood and disposition. Are we private introverted and deep and dark, or extroverted, bubbly, highly social and outgoing? All of these will taint, obfuscate and prevent successful functioning and communication, and of course learning in the new setting. Marvin Minskey portrays an interesting and insightful discussion that aliens may have if they came to earth and had to work out if we were able to think at all. If we are, then we would be entitled to rights.

In science fiction accounts lead-distinctions tend to be obvious, for instance in The Dark Light Years (1964) by Brian Aldiss, humanity does not even recognise that the aliens are intelligent or self-aware and presumes that they are animals and treats them accordingly. Come to think of it, isn’t this rather like how ethnic peoples were figured under imperialism, how Jews and others have been cast, how Russians and communists came to be viewed by the west during the cold war, how slaves were, and are still today, treated, and even the likes of ‘Occupy’ demonstrators by powerful elites backed up by the police? Are they not to be treated as something different, lesser, intellectually and ideologically and certainly economically inferior, as something almost inhuman… like an alien. Wouldn’t it not be convenient or ideologically at all and politically easier [correct] as a scapegoat for using excessive force if they were all Muslim? Acting like this these people shouldn’t have any constitutional rights.

This would be the paradoxical argument used for aliens. Perhaps dissidents should be arrested dropped by parachute into Taliban held areas and then they could have a discussion regarding democracy and ‘rights’- unless they were Al Qaeda or Taliban themselves. Then they’d be ‘home’. Then they would then know why they protest. Too many problem-solving sessions become battlegrounds where decisions are made based on power rather than intelligence. Globally right now, we intellectuals are in a schism, we know kn ow if we want universality, monolithic government, or diversity, and live and let live. Oh, we only want some things the same, but not the rest…? The background and history of why these options exits at all in the first place.

There are perhaps strong parallels to the notion of alien in the common approach to disability, where people with locked-in syndrome (and there are increasingly cases of this in developed countries with developed healthcare systems which are sustaining people, loved ones in this case, well past their sell-by dates. They have to be professionally cared for, using mucho technology and $$$ to insert, probe, prick, puncture, inject, cut, sedate, and help feed and breathe, like ventilators and intensive human touch. They are called ‘waste’ for those who worry about paying for this. The figures are startling – 18 to 20 percent of Americans spend their last days in an ICU, and often these are not last days but rather last months or even years, at up to $10,000 a day. They are periods marked by discomfort and pain often with no chance of recovery … “Dying badly… Dying suffering. Dying connected to machines “ As one medic put it. Put this with recurrent tales of horrific old folks home abuses in Europe, and the U.S. ‘harrowing catalogues of physical abuse’, join with what we term as psycho- or socio- paths who strategically or randomly kill, kidnap and torture people all suffer from an extreme version of this particular disability – a disability to properly understand, a conflict of morals, and a devaluing of those, who, through no real fault of their own are, or suddenly or gradually become different. Anyone then, who suffers a stroke or fro a debilitating degenerative disease like motor-neurone can be subject to the secret accusation of failure from the able-bodied, the ‘normal functioning adult’ in their failure to empathise and sympathise or even prepare or design properly for such conditions and eventualities. Psycho killers get incarcerated at am ore public expense therefore they are targets for killing as well. There was an answer in the sci-fi movie Solyent Green (1973) where humans were used in food production in an overcrowded world, Faber’s Under the Skin(2000) set in Scotland and telling the story of aliens who are farming humans as a delicacy [like loch fine oysters.

Our attempts to communicate and monitor for alien intelligence is severely restricted to a fairly narrow definition of what ‘Alien’ is. I mean what could it mean, or how they could communicate and organise? Marvin Minskey makes mention of particular idea and categories that would have to be shared in order to make sense of each other at all, “If alien minds were entirely different from ours, communication might be impossible.” He goes to delineate four categories of ways we think of things. “My guess is that we have developed special brain-machinery to represent objects, differences, and causes–and much of our thinking is based on using mental symbols in these ways:

OBJECT-SYMBOLS represent things, ideas, or processes. In languages, they often correspond to Nouns. Our minds describe each scene, real or mental, in terms of separate object-things and relations between them.

represent differences between, or changes in OBJECTS. In languages, they correspond to Verbs. When any object undergoes a change, or two objects are considered at once, the mind ascribes some DIFFERENCES.

CAUSE-SYMBOLS. When any DIFFERENCE is conceived, the mind is made to find a CAUSE for it–something to be held responsible. We use a clever mental trick of representing causes in same way that we represent objects.

CLAUSE-STRUCTURES. Whatever we can express or describe, we can treat its expression or description as though it was a single component inside another description. In languages, this corresponds to using embedded phrases and clauses.

For Minsky these categories characterise the way we think. But he places special emphasis upon the last category, the idea of
representing prior thoughts as things, “gives our minds the awesome power to use the same brain-machinery over and over again–to replace entire conceptualizations by compact symbols, and hence to build gigantic structures of ideas the way our children build great bridges and towers from simple separate blocks. It lets us build new ideas from old ones; in short, it makes it possible to think.”

The attempts that have been made to communicate with extra-terrestrials have been actually very few and in themselves very limited, narrow in scope and scale relative to the size and potential planets in the universe. Looking for a needle in a haystack simply just doesn’t stack up at all in this search routine. With an estimated 70 Sextillion (70 000 000 000 000 000 000 000) stars in the known universe*, discovering Planets, instruments for the task still in the early stages of development….. and at the moment it’s a case of 190 found even though targeting has become a little more focused with the discovery of several more earth-like planets in recent years. Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee have given us the right shopping list for earth-like planets in Rare earth (2000; p.xxxi):

The right distance from a star; habitat for complex life; liquid water near surface; far enough to avoid tidal lock; right mass of star with long enough lifetime and not too much ultraviolet; stable planetary orbits; right planet mass to maintain atmosphere and ocean with a solid molten core and enough heat for plate tectonics; a Jupiter-like neighbour to clear out comets and asteroids; plate tectonics to build up land mass, enhance bio-diversity, and enable a magnetic field; not too much, nor too little ocean; a large moon at the right distance to stabilize tilt; a small Mars-like neighbour as possible source to seed Earth-like planet; maintenance of adequate temperature, composition and pressure for plants and animals; a galaxy with enough heavy elements, not too small, elliptical or irregular; right position the galaxy; few giant impacts like 65 million years ago; enough carbon for life, but not enough for runaway greenhouse effect; evolution of oxygen and photosynthesis; and, of course, biological evolution.

We do not normally consider, unless we hold animist beliefs that inanimate objects communicate with each other in any form of sentient way. That these sedimentary layers of rock ‘speak’ to each other in the creation of layers, that gases complain, or gases argue, that flowers communicate to bees through pollen, that bacteria speak to each other that something good to eat is over there by quorum sensing. I do the same thinking about Loch Fyne Oysters (sorry to see they have taken off the oyster with local butcher beef sausages)

No we look for intelligence in the universe cast largely in our own image, our on tastes, rationalised according to a scientifically-literate, democratic, curious, analytical, etc. etc. average adult and responsible being with a good educational background and a firm grasp Minskey’s categories, a liberal arts and general knowledge background [which is being squeezed out of education globally] enough to make informed decisions on matters and citizenship. I mean that wouldn’t we be happy having aliens land who were more or less, or only slightly different and only slightly more advanced in some areas than us. If they weren’t funny, then they could or should be good-looking, slim, not too old, tall, handsome or beautiful, and could articulate themselves in a free, unhampered, and relaxed manner, like a good television interviewer.politician or chat show host or just a good old pal, that made us all feel at ease and good within ourselves. That if they were speaking to us business people, they would wear a business suit and decent brand tie and if it were ordinary folks, families on the weekend at a fete in a market town, they would dress in slacks and semi-formal smart but casual attire? That the reporter would wear battle gear and flak jacket if they were in a battle zone? That they would say, report on what we want to hear.

Wouldn’t we prefer that any visiting or communicating aliens mirror us, surprise us, delight us, enamour us, by doing so in a similar way? Could they just leaving enough slack so we could would not hang ourselves, but profit from sharing, some of their innovations and them from us in a perfectly fair and mutual manner? Such an idea featured in the ‘First contact’ (1945) by Murray Leinster [who incidentally also depicted the home PC and flat screen technology], however in this story no exchange is made due to a lack of trust with the other. The earth ship detects another on its radar. But the two ships’ interfere with the others’ functioning, leaving only a wildly distorted image of the other ship. Even after the problem is resolved and the two crews, one human, one alien, establish communication, both realize they have a Mexican face-off, they now fear for each others’ home planet and a kind of détente results. The aliens are humanoid bipeds, but see in the infrared portion of the spectrum. Also, instead of using sound to communicate among themselves they use microwaves emitted from an organ in their heads.

“My guess, sir, is that they use microwaves for what you might call person-to-person conversation. I think they make short-wave trains as we make sounds. The skipper stared at him: That means they have telepathy? M-m-m. Yes, sir, said Tommy. Also it means that we have telepathy too, as far as they are concerned. They’re probably deaf. They’ve certainly no idea of using sound waves in air for communication. They simply don’t use noises for any purpose… H-m-m. What’s your impression of their psychology? The skipper asked the question of the psychologist. I don’t know, sir, said the psychologist harassedly. They seem to be completely direct. But they haven’t let slip even a hint of the tenseness we know exists. They act as if they were simply setting up a means of communication for friendly conversation. But there is … well … an overtone. The psychologist was a good man at psychological mensuration, which is a good and useful field. But he was not equipped to analyze a completely alien thought-pattern “(p.6-7)

We do not have to look no further than presidential candidates, who like celebrities with their style advisors and communications coaches, groom them to be Mr or Mrs. Anyone. Is this not also what we expect from our students when we feel, even ever so slightly that they are delinquent and different, until they prove themselves through passing examinations? That they should know as we know, talk as we talk, digress or innovate at your peril! In a similar fashion that missionaries we were offended by tribal nudity and manners, and did their best to convince them to cover-up and start looking like responsible goodly and Christian Europeans. This is a pervasive attitude when we consider that NASA managers insisted that they did not put genitalia on the Pioneer and Voyager plates. It came on the back of many complaints to the agency from the public including newspaper reports that “Nudes and Map tell about Earth to Other Worlds.” there was a huge uproar about NASA “wasting” taxpayer money to send “obscenities” into space. (Sagan, p.24; 1973; but see Benford, 1998 for a fuller discussion).

SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) was set up to locate any intelligible signals coming to us from the universe; nothing has been recognised so far. We have also sent messages to intelligent life, communicating in a reduced and simplified manner such as we use when speaking to someone who has underwent some trauma (i.e. the equivalent of “can you hear me? ”, “can you lift your hand and wave?”). The Arecibo message, sent during the dedication of a major upgrade to the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico on the afternoon of Nov. 16, 1974, contained some very basic information about the human race. It included representations of the fundamental chemicals of life, the formula for DNA, a crude diagram of our solar system and simple pictures of a human being and the Arecibo telescope. Around the same time Nasa launched the Pioneer and later the Voyager probes. There aim was to explore the solar system and then head out into deep space. They were adorned with a plaque
aimed at communicating who we are to any extra-terrestrial intelligence intercepting them. The radio signals would take 25,000 years to get there, and 25,000 years to get a reply. The voyager craft will take 40,000 years to reach any other planetary system. The message based on science, logic and mathematics was designed by astronomers and physical scientists, including Carl Sagan.

I often wonder what would happen if Pioneer or Voyager, spun around and crash landed on earth in the middle of the Cambodian hinterland. Would the locals who found it, able to read and interpret the carefully and intelligently designed plaque which is supposed to ‘decode’ who and where and what we are. Before they rip it apart and use it for scrap? I don’t know what they would make of the nudity, maybe they would find it normal, I doubt if they would see it as pornographic. According to the Cornell News press release of November 12, 1999, the real purpose of the message was not to make contact, but to demonstrate the capabilities of newly installed equipment. Maybe this is like video recorders in Cambodia, whom some researchers employed by western faith-based organisation use ‘scientific’ social science to perpetrate the myth of the ruining of Rousseau type nature in the Cambodian countryside while casting a picture of technology capable of engendering low moral turpitude::

As a result of technological advancement and economic growth in Cambodia, pornographic video disks and the equipment to play them are now available in many districts, as single villages often have one or two homes with a vcd machine which other villagers can sometimes utilize. As a result, there appears to be a significant level of exposure of Cambodian children to hard-core pornography, and children in both urban areas and remote rural areas are at risk.(p.23)

The conclusion should read like; “scientific evidence shows conclusively…” Ït is clear from our unbiased promenade into the Cambodian hinterland that heathens are still at prey, egged on by western debauchery…” “These ethnic people need converting now before they are all condemned to hell through their blind adoption of western evilness…” and so forth.

In my many ventures to Cambodian homes both in the city or the country, and living within ordinary Khmer communities, I have yet to drop in on a group watching pornography even at “funerals and other ritual or festive occasions.” (p.38) But clearly the researcher and his team were using a different lens to me in the construction of this research. In typical ‘prohibition era’ fashion no doubt they switched off as I arrived lest they upset my sensibilities, something that wasn’t a problem for the researchers. It’s good to read reports that are congruent with, and confirm, your personal experience. Its uneasy to read things that you have never witnessed first hand… like Cambodian aliens.

In other science fiction accounts, such as the Space Odyssey series by Arthur C. Clarke, the aliens take on an almost god-like quality as they are so far advanced of humanity, that noticeable actions and logics are completely abstract. This would be unusual for Americans, whose Flag is the only one on a different heavenly body. These fall into a different category of story which involves suprahuman aliens which manifest radically different or perhaps superior intelligence are portrayed to influence human development, and as such take the place of God. The French philosopher John Paul Sarte in ‘Being as Nothingness ‘ paints a distinctive picture of human as creatures haunted by a vision of “completion,” what Sartre calls the ens causa sui [“being one’s own cause”], and which religions identify as God. Born into the material reality of one’s body, in an all-too-material universe, one finds oneself inserted into being, and thereafter engaged on a quest to explore what it might be like to be omnipotent, consciousness without beginning or end. The impossibility of communication with alien intelligence is also portrayed in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961)

From wikepedia

There are a mass of perceivable problems in meeting with aliens whose existence shows even slight differences to us – say they lived much longer – as this could have implications on their worldviews. It is difficult to speak of how intelligence impacts upon quality of life, when so many other social and economic factors culminate in what you can or cannot do, how you realise what options are available to you and how you can grasp and exploit them. If a box in the corner of the room was introduced as some future computer which is more sentient, more intelligence more thoughtful than an average human, what would it do, what would it think, how would I recognise if it, or me, were simply part of the environment, the same way as I kick a rock without worrying if it feels it?

Suffice to say that aliens that conceivably would not only have a different culture and history but probably also different configuration sensory organs with which to perceive the world, a different brain structure with which to organise thought and different hormones or the equivalent influencing their thinking. These kinds of problems feature in the more non-popular science fiction.

Sarte presents consciousness with the ability to conceptualize possibilities, and to make them appear, or to annihilate them. He places determination back under total control of the human subject. Consciousness is in a state of cohabitation with its material body [embodiment]; it is no thing as it is entirely sublimated unless it comes to attention in needs [hunger, pain, cold etc.]. Consciousness can imagine that which is not [imagine the future, etc.].

In science fiction consciousness can become dislodged freed up from its physical, material body and situated in an experiential and existential reality according with design. From the idea of the ‘brain in a vat’, to uploading and downloading consciousness, to immersing our sensory apparatus in virtual worlds. From at least Brainstorms (1983) where a team of UC Irvine scientists has been awarded a $4 million grant from the U.S. Army Research Office to study the neuroscientific and signal-processing foundations of synthetic telepathy.

The incorporation and use of future technologies give traction to the science fiction genre to portray alternative realities. They provide glimpses of a future where technology typically plays an pivotal role mediating in human affairs and consciousness, for good or for bad. Sarte in ‘Being and nothingness’ restates his central thesis that an individual’s existence is prior to the individual’s essence, and this is a theme that we would recognise from a number of science fiction narratives.

It is usually introduced as a means for humanity to achieve immortality by escaping incapacity, ageing and vulnerable bodies and is therefore generally popular in the fictional societies that have access to the technology. C S Lewis is cited as saying that science fiction is the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug. Whether the evolution of a hive mind as in The Chrysalids (1955) by John Wyndham, a racial step forward as in Childhood’s End (1963) by Arthur C Clarke or an electronic leap as in The Lawnmower Man, they all involve a new consciousness and subsequent worldview which generally poses a threat to the rest of humanity.First contact themes in science fiction often allows authors to explore such topics such as xenophobia, transcendentalism, and basic linguistics by adapting the anthropological topic of first contact to extraterrestrial cultures. Hawking says – “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” He sees that when Columbus showed up in the Americas, well, that didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans. And therefore we should similarly be worried about trying to attract the attention of an alien civilization. Kathryn Denning a biased retelling of Earth’s history and it’s usually not a very good one. The underlying narrative there is that it went poorly for the Native Americans because they were the inferior civilization. And, by extension, it would go poorly for us because the other party would be the superior civilization. But that simply wasn’t the case for the Native Americans.

Returning to Sarte for a moment he fixes the context for his study between the extreme of a certain realism and idealism; a realism that attempts to relate ideas as representation to the things represented and consequentially leads to the already rejected dualism of appearance versus reality; and idealism, which clams that the existence of things consist in the knowledge we have of them – as Berkeley (Bishop George Berkley 16-1753) puts it, “to be us to be perceived” (esse est percipi). (Joseph S. Catalano A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness”

His mission was “was to vindicate the fundamental freedom of the human being, against determinists of all stripes. It was for the sake of this freedom that he asserted the impotence of physical causality over human beings, that he analysed the place of nothingness within consciousness and showed how it intervened between the forces that act upon us and our actions.”

Sartre describes just how complex the calculus can be in everyday cognition just by making sense of sitting in a park,: Being alone in a park, at this time, all relations in the park (e.g.. the bench is between two trees) are available, accessible and occurring-for him. When another person arrives in the park, there is now a relation between that person and the bench, and this is not entirely available to him. The relation is presented as an object (e.g.. man glances at watch), but is really not an object, it cannot be known. It flees from him. The other person is a “drainhole” in the world, they disintegrate the relations of which Sartre was earlier the absolute centre.

In an article ‘Being in Nothingness’ which paraphrases Sartre, the denizen of internet freedom John Perry Barlow lays out a vision of the future which is either prophetic or a self-fulfilling prophesy on behalf of the silicon valley programming community. In it he cites that:

Since the Sumerians starting poking sticks into clay and claiming that the resulting cuneiform squiggles meant something, we’ve been living in the Information Age. Only lately did someone come up with a name for it. I suppose that was because we quit making anything else of value. Before that, they just called it civilization… As early as the 5th Century B.C. we hear the first warnings that information might constitute an abuse of experience. Socrates suggested that writing things down might damage your ability to remember them in their proper, full-bodied form.… It wasn’t until the 17th Century that things really got out of hand. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote and fiction was born. From that point, any experience could be plucked from its holy moment in time and pressed like a flower in a book, to be reconstituted later in the imagination of the reader…

The twentieth century has also seen the formation of a huge

“DataCloud,” an unending stream of meaningless statistical information which defies analysis from its sheer quantity… Despite the current confines of my little office-island, I know that I have become a traveller in a realm which will be ultimately bounded only by human imagination, a world without any of the usual limits of geography, growth, carrying capacity, density or ownership. Virtual Reality is probably not going to cure this nonsense any more than television…has done…If it won’t contain the DataCloud, it might at least provide some navigational aids through it.”

He notes that “the metaphors “exploration,” “interaction” and “immersion,” central to virtual reality, emphasize engagement, involvement, control and action. Computers cannot make space or provide a synthesized experience identical with direct experience, anymore than they can syntheisize the working of human cognition in a living brain… It’s Disneyland for epistemologists.”


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