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Some Thoughts from an Anthropologist on Culture, Interstellar Communication, and the Construction of Interstellar Messages John W. Traphagan, Ph.D. University.

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Presentation on theme: "Some Thoughts from an Anthropologist on Culture, Interstellar Communication, and the Construction of Interstellar Messages John W. Traphagan, Ph.D. University."— Presentation transcript:

1 Some Thoughts from an Anthropologist on Culture, Interstellar Communication, and the Construction of Interstellar Messages John W. Traphagan, Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin

2 Presentation Aims Think about “culture” as it relates to interstellar message construction and cross-cultural communication Can we assume a mutually intelligible symbolic system for representing ideas and actions? ◦ Can we truly assume that the symbolic representation of mathematics by an alien being would be mutually intelligible with our own?

3 Structure of Talk Relationship between intelligence and culture ◦ How would culture be different if our sensory apparatus were different? How do variations in human cultures influence communication? What is culture? Anthropology and the study/invention of culture Implications for SETI research


5 What is culture? Tendency to assume “culture” as a concept not in need of precise definition Culture as homogenizing category Essentialistic representations of our own and other societies

6 Standard Definition Culture is a shared set of beliefs, customs, and ideas that are learned and that unify people into coherent and identifiable groups Culture represents a form of collective or social memory that links past, present, and future This formulation represents culture as fairly deterministic in shaping human behavior within a particular—and bounded—society

7 Better Definition People not only are held together, but may be divided by their customs and beliefs, even when they ostensibly belong to the same culture Rather than a deterministic “thing” culture is better understood as a process by which people continually contest and reinvent the customs, beliefs, and ideas that they use, collectively, individually, and often strategically, to characterize their surroundings In short, culture is in a constant state of flux

8 My Definition Culture is a complex arrangement of symbolic structures that are negotiated and developed in reaction to personal experience mediated by particular sensory apparatuses and through which individuals organize and interpret sensory data that are, in turn, used for further organization, interpretation, and creation of symbolic structures These arrangements are interconnected regions of memory that are used to translate concrete experience into domains of abstract, and subjective, reasoning and feeling

9 Culture and Biology Culture does not simply provide a set of ideas, rules, or concepts that shape behavior; it provides an environment of behaviors that people observe and that influences the physiological development of the brain Studies of sensory deprivation show that the idea of separation between the individual and environment (cultural or natural) is highly problematic Intelligence in individuals and, more broadly, across a species necessarily develops as a product of social context

10 What is Intelligence? Minsky (1985) argues that basic capacities and characteristics will be typical of any intelligent being: ◦ Problem solving ◦ Analytical skills ◦ Ability to describe the world ◦ Explanatory skills ◦ Accumulation and exchange of information ◦ Allocation of scarce resources ◦ Planning ahead ◦ Self-awareness

11 Intelligence and Culture What differentiates humans from other beings? Minsky’s work is suggestive, but does not deal sufficiently with issue of culture Michael Tomasello: Capacity to deeply identify with others—to empathize ◦ Small difference leads to cascading effects on the capacity to do cultural things ◦ Generates ability to internalize and elaborate on collaborative production ◦ Allows us to create and accumulate cultural artifacts, practices, and beliefs

12 Intelligence and Culture Empathic ability generates capacity to understand others as intentional, mental beings (like ourselves) ◦ Evolution of this capacity enabled new forms of cultural learning and the accumulation of cultural artifacts and behaviors, with modification, over time Human children grow up surrounded by these socially and historically constructed artifacts and practices Being immersed in this cultural milieu allows children to: ◦ Benefit from accumulated knowledge and skills ◦ Acquire and use perspective-based cognitive representations – symbols, as well as analogies and metaphors constructed from symbols ◦ Internalize specific types of discourse interactions that are developed into skills allowing us to:  Regulate cognitive processes through self-awareness of those processes (metacognition)  Symbolically represent and describe the world around us  Think and create dialogically Our understanding of the world is entirely mediated through these processes, which are themselves mediated through specific sensory apparatuses (Tomasello, Michael The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press.)

13 What is it like to be a bat? Thomas Nagel Consciousness of experience occurs at a variety of levels among animal life We can imagine what it is like to be a bat; we cannot know what it is like Understanding what it is to experience being another form of animal life is impossible In other words, we lack the capacity to empathize with bats

14 How do bats process the world? Echolocation ◦ Discriminate among objects Echolocation mediates how bats enact capacities such as planning ahead to avoid ramming things or identifying mosquitoes to eat Model of world based primarily upon interpretation of sound reflections, as opposed to light reflections

15 Empathy and Humans Humans don’t vary a whole lot biologically Can we understand what it is like to be blind or deaf? The things we choose to focus on when constructing our world vary from one culture to another

16 Counting in Japanese 一枚、二枚、三枚 ◦ Flat thin thing—CD, sheet of paper 一冊、二冊、三冊 ◦ Copy—such as a book 一匹、二匹、三匹 ◦ Small animal—cat, mouse 一台、二台、三台 ◦ Machine—car, washing machine 一本、二本、三本 ◦ Cylindrical object—pen, pipe

17 Japanese and English Counting English distinguishes between one and many ◦ Plural and singular Japanese distinguishes among shapes and sizes ◦ Plural forms are not important in Japanese一二三四五六

18 Information Loss We can translate counting in Japanese into English ◦ 鉛筆一本 = one cylindrical object that is a lead writing brush = one pencil ◦ 車二台 = two cars that are large machines = two cars Basic interpretive and classificatory information associated with how Japanese people perceive what is important in counting things is lost Some of what is important for English speakers— adding reference to plurality—is added Differences in what is deemed important to explicate and imply ◦ Personal pronouns

19 How Would a Bat Count? How would we translate counting between humans and a race of intelligent beings who process sensory data through echolocation? Would counting—and more generally mathematics—necessarily be symbolically represented in the same way humans do this? Perhaps such beings would be quite interested in shape and size or reflective qualities when counting, given their manner of processing the world ◦ Would a bat-like intelligent species count “one large, sound-absorbent thing, two large, sound-absorbent thing,” or “one small, sound-reflective thing, two small, sound-reflective thing?”

20 Constructing Reality Through Culture Underlying principles of symbolic systems like mathematics or music should be understood by both humans and an alien intelligence Manner in which a particular being obtains and processes sensory data will influence the way in which it constructs any system to describe what is being processed Elements of the world that are deemed important in a particular culture will influence cognition and the manner in which individuals classify and construct their world around elements that matter more or less The nature of empathy will be significantly influenced by the manner in which a being processes information and collectively represents and transfers that information

21 Some Implications 1. Culture is not distinct from biology—the sensory apparatus individuals use significantly shapes their experience of the world and the manner in which they experience and construct cultural ideas and patterns of behavior 2. Culture represents a context for linking memory, experience, and predictability (past, present, and future) into an interpretive framework that people use to deal with their surroundings 3. Culture is not bounded, nor is it constant, instead it is in a continual state of change or motion 4. Culture is not consistent, it is an amalgam of individual experiences, interpretations, and memories that are treated as though they are consistent but, in fact, involve considerable variation at the individual level 5. Culture mediates all human interactions with the world and, thus, influences all aspects of perception and thought 6. Culture shapes the way we construct symbolic systems for representing the world—mathematics is one such system


23 Anthropology What are the practical implications of thinking about culture and intelligence in this way? Anthropology provides possibility of analogy to SETI research Historically, anthropologists have been focused on dealing with “alien” others about which little was known

24 Anthropology at a Distance Early anthropologists, often known as armchair anthropologists ◦ Research at a distance ◦ Long time delays ◦ Unreliable modes of communication Contact, direct or indirect, normally involved interactions with people with whom the anthropologist shared no language Much of the early data collected was mediated ◦ Missionaries ◦ Colonial officials ◦ Military personnel (mercenaries) E. B. Tylor (1832 – 1917)

25 Alien Cultures When data were eventually received interpretation was largely based upon theoretical frameworks and assumptions that had a decidedly Western tinge Social Darwinism and cultural evolution with its underpinnings associated with progress and the superiority of Europeans

26 20 th Century Anthropology Armchair anthro- pology came largely to an end in the early 20 th Century as transportation improved Circumstances related to World War II led to another, very important, instance of anthropology at a distance

27 An Alien Enemy Ruth Benedict (1887 – 1948) ◦ Anthropologist trained by the father of American cultural anthropology, Franz Boas ◦ Worked primarily among Hopi until WWII Commissioned by US government to conduct a study of Japanese culture in mid 1940s ◦ Japanese behavior made little sense to Americans

28 A Difficult Task How do you conduct an ethnographic study of your enemy in the middle of a war? The answer to this was to conduct research by looking at translated literature, films Also interviewed Americans of Japanese descent living in relocation camps in the desert Southwest

29 Research on Prisoners Respondents were passive, a result of being in a stressful context Spoke with a representative of the very government that had forcibly removed them from their homes and imprisoned them

30 Chrysanthemum and Sword After the war, Benedict published her report to the government as a book, entitled The Chrysanthemum and the Sword This book sold widely in both the US and Japan No single book has had more influence on our understanding of Japan than Benedict’s

31 Reactions to C and S “…Dr. Benedict, with the soft words of a fox spirit, leads the reader into the forest of Japan and before he knows it she has him bewitched into believing that he understands and is familiar with every root and branch of Japanese culture” (Embree 1947a:11) “The most important contemporary book yet written on Japan. Here, for the first time, is a serious attempt to explain why the Japanese behave the way they do” (Morris 1947:208).

32 Paradigm for Study of Japan Benedict’s work set out the parameters for what would be considered the basic elements and core values associated with Japanese culture and the Japanese psyche for years to follow Much research produced supported the conclusions, either directly or indirectly, that Benedict had drawn from her study

33 Invention of Japan Benedict’s at-a-distance take on Japan became Japan itself for many, and perhaps the majority, of Americans throughout most of the second half of the 20th Century Benedict’s work was central in the US government’s approach to re-organizing and engineering Japanese society following the War Widely read by an American public interested in understanding the enemy they had just conquered and whose country they were now occupying

34 Consequences of Benedict’s Work Lack of valid empirical data led to an emphasis of theory over description and analysis Benedict essentially fit “Japanese culture” into a theoretical framework she had developed in her earlier work on the Hopi Led to a tendency to create stereotypes of Japanese culture and to think in simplistic terms about how Japanese behave Groupism, hyper-loyalty, the “samurai ethic” What became understood as “Japanese culture” was not an accurate representation

35 Invention of Japan Complex interplay of assumptions, theory, data, and misinterpretations ◦ Became the basis on which understanding of an alien civilization was developed Japan, as a culture and a civilization, was not simply discovered, it was in many respects created out of this interplay In short, our understanding of Japanese culture and behavior was filtered, significantly, through our own cultural notions: ◦ Assumption that objective data collection and analysis of alien cultures is possible ◦ Assumption of racial homogeneity ◦ Assumption of uniformity of behavior based upon cultural determinism


37 What will ET be like? Altruistic Bent on imperial domination When we ask this question, there are several assumptions lurking that influence the types of answers we arrive at

38 Assumptions Aliens will think in uniform ways and have a uniform culture ◦ They will act in consistent and predictable ways and will display cultural consensus ◦ Reflection on our own case and the above discussion makes it clear that if they are anything like us, this will not be true Indeed, a tacit assumption of much of the literature dealing with contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is the idea that an alien civilization will be culturally unified, unlike our own world We will discover the alien civilization we encounter, rather than invent it in ways consistent with our own culturally shaped frameworks for understanding others At some root level, we will be able to empathize with an alien intelligence

39 Evolutionary Model Progress leads to greater levels of unified organizational structure which implies higher level of “civilization” that is relatively homogeneous ◦ Animism vs. monotheism discredits this assumption Assumption of human, and particularly Western, perspectives that have a teleological notion of cultural evolution in which there is a universal outcome to processes of cultural change Advanced, in this formulation, becomes inexorably associated with culturally and politically unified Fact of increased technological sophistication ≠ increase political or social sophistication Intelligence is uniform a product of evolutionary change and is biological, not cultural, thus it should be displayed in highly similar ways among different intelligent species

40 Problems with Anthropocentrism Anthropocentric views assume an underlying likeness to humanity in any intelligent being and in the ways in which “culture” is expressed and shapes civilization formation among all intelligent beings Culture will exist among aliens—intelligence does not arise without culture Nature of culture will be attuned to a particular a particular natural and social environment and a particular set of sensory apparatuses for processing information about that environment ◦ Could be similar to human culture, but I’d bet it won’t be

41 Implications for SETI Research If we encounter evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, we should not only be concerned with deciphering the meaning of the signal in terms of intended content, but also in terms of what it tells us about the thing that sent it A signal conveys both explicit and implicit information about the sender. ◦ The fact, for example, that humans have been sending television images out into the galaxy for several decades could tell extraterrestrials a great deal about how we process information, if they are able to recognize that those signals contain information that can be represented in a visual medium An alien intelligence that recognizes this fact would then have a basis upon which to create a message that we might be able to understand

42 Implications for SETI Research The few intentional messages that have been sent out to date, such as Drake’s approach of broadcasting pictures and binary information that requires no prior understanding of our technology, are an attempt to anticipate the capacities of another civilization of intelligent beings Drake’s message provides some basic information about us and our knowledge, including numbers from one to ten, the human form, DNA structure, hydrogen and carbon atoms, and information about our solar system The problem is that it requires prior understanding of our culture, because the symbolic structures used to represent the information are embedded in our culture and are a product of our sensory experience of the world ◦ Drake himself has noted that when he presented the message to different scientists, they had trouble interpreting the entire message

43 Implications for SETI Research Instead of primarily being concerned with the content of a message, we might want to consider being concerned with what the message tells us about who sent it In Drake’s message, there are several subtexts that convey information about us that are not necessarily part of the intended meaning ◦ We think in terms of binary relationships—we encode information in terms of 1’s and 0’s—and understand two-dimensional images ◦ We are highly visual ◦ We are highly logical—an assumption that would be misleading at best ◦ All humans think in ways similar to scientists living in the industrial world If the message was interpreted as being sent by “an alien civilization” for the purpose of making contact, then it would suggest quite inaccurately that we are a unified society or culture interested in communication with civilizations in other parts of the universe

44 Future Directions Research on interstellar message construction should involve not only thinking about the explicit message intended, but direct consideration of the implicit information that is being conveyed along with the explicit message Rather than asking the questions, “What does ET mean in a message?” or “What information do we want to convey in a message from us to ET?” we should also be asking ◦ “What are the implicit indicators and forms of information about ET and ourselves that are contained in any message sent or received?” ◦ “How are our signals products of culturally specific symbolic systems?” How is information about our culture(s) and our biology encoded in the messages we generate?

45 Interpretive Contexts What cultural assumptions go into the creation and interpretation of any message we create or might receive? Because we are inherently cultural beings, culture has and will continue to shape the process of looking for and, if contact is made, interpreting an encounter We need to be overtly aware of this and attempt to bracket our own culturally circumscribed tendencies and assumptions as much as possible

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