I heard this wonderful episode of the podcast “99% Invisible” recently. It was about the problem of communicating across ten thousand years, to tell our distant descendants that “This Area Is Insanely Radioactive, Go Away”. In truth, even a ten-thousand year scope is irresponsible, since we all now understand that the material will be pretty unsafe for the next 250,000 years.
The speakers make the salient point that Shakespearean English is roughly 400 years old, or 4% of the time we’re trying to span. The “English” of Beowulf is 10% the distance they’re trying to shout over. Languages and common symbols drift away in the 10k year time-span. Nothing human is anchored down at that scale. Any foreboding landmark we can construct can become an attraction (or an undecipherable mess). Any repulsive obstacle can become an attractive challenge or an irrelevant nothing.
One especially curious solution was to genetically engineer some cats to become “living Geiger counters”, changing color in the presence of high-radiation, and then singing songs and telling stories whose moral was simply, “If the cats change color, run away.” The men who came up with this theory argued that culture itself was the only technology that could span that kind of time. If the simple heuristic that “cats should not change color” could be preserved over time, the people of the future do not need to understand the “why”. Let me be clear- it’s a silly solution. Still, thought provoking I think.
This long-temporal-distance communication problem has been itching me lately. I’ve been reading Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication, which nominally is about the problems of cultural exchange with extraterrestrials. [Full PDF courtesy of NASA.gov, here]. The big analogy, though, is with another kind of one-way limited-context communication: between human cultures separated by millennia. (I put up some early notes on my home-blog here, on trying to eke meaning out of Egyptian, Mayan, and North American artifacts).
One of the obvious benefits of “comparative studies” is that it can help to suggest what properties might be more generalizable and which are more contingent or local to the entities in question. From our distance and our own distinct cultural differences, we can make generalizations of other cultures that they themselves might not have seen as contingent or even worth comment. We might call these hidden premises “Unknown Knowns”, to fill out the missing quadrant of that infamous Rumsfeld quote.
We all float in a soup of communally-understood symbols and stories and ideologies that we might occasionally mistake for self-evident. Those who have never attempted their own “ideological comparative studies”- those who haven’t engaged with titled and demarcated Philosophies- may have a harder time distinguishing what is unique or contentious or inconsistent or “recent” in their own worldview, but they aren’t necessarily without a worldview. Those who choose not to engage with the minds of others are missing out on powerful tools of a kind of metacognition.
I apologize if this is a trite point. I am agnostic on whether, all things being equal, a more capital-P Philosophically-literate populace would necessarily grease the wheels of American democracy. I don’t think that well-defined Philosophies are necessary for an individual to live a good and virtuous life (for my definitions of those words, anyway), as we already have socialized ‘default scripts’ for how people ought to act, even without a cleanly articulated framework. I do think that social engagement and personal effort can make one a more conscientious, empathetic, aware person- whether that necessarily has intrinsic or instrumental value, I’m unequipped to even guess.
Hi all, I’m Chris, and I’m looking forward to more great conversation here. I have a low-activity Twitter as careid0, and I scribble madness at www.fogbanking.com. My perennial interests are decision-making, human-computer interaction, organizations, and games studies. I’m a consultant on weekdays and a game developer on weekends.