STUMBLING TOWARD THE TRUTH—THINKING LIKE A MARTIAN
Thursday, February 1, 2024
Over and over again we have been focusing on stories about how our verbal culture fails because it is too fragmented, too limited, too specialized—while a visual, big-picture culture is ignored. We could see this as another example of the ancient Greek myth of Cassandra— who could see the future—but no one would believe her.
With many of those we have looked at, the pattern is clear: the new recognition of some big idea or concept; the battle against that new idea or concept by the conventional experts; the gradual recognition of the value of the key idea or concept—because over time it functions to reorganize lots of information or a whole field—and many apparently unrelated pieces fall into place. Eventually a new generation accepts the new vision as obvious and essential. The old believers fight a rearguard action in the courts and legislatures and (sometimes) universities, but the larger culture moves on, (almost fully) accepting as obvious the truth and usefulness of the new idea or concept. (Rarely, some special people, sometimes, make a reconciliation of the new with the old.)
In such times, and especially in our own, it can be quite useful to try to see the bigger picture by standing back a distance. In his book Timescale: An Atlas of the Fourth Dimension, the British science writer Nigel Calder writes of learning “how to be a Martian” –- trying to learn how to see Earth and everything on it as it would be seen by a “dispassionate,” disinterested, and distant being. Calder considers this exercise a way of identifying those things that are really important, the really substantial trends over time, which are often quite different from the presumed “serious business” of “pots, kings, and battles.”
Calder observes that it is quite difficult to cultivate this disinterested point of view. “Even the most skeptical historians,” he notes, “seem barely able to distance themselves from the assumptions of their culture.” Consequently, nearly “everyone takes it for granted that reading and writing are blessings.” However, our education provides us with little awareness of the “high levels of sophistication” attained by non-literate peoples—who were nonetheless able to understand the stars and deep ocean currents well enough to navigate the broad Pacific, for example.
“Skill in archery,” he observes, “may have been as important as writing in shaping the course of history.” There is a great danger of seeing pre-literate or non-literate peoples as merely primitive and undeveloped. We are so well trained in the dominant values of our own culture that it is hard to give them due respect for their considerable accomplishments in the things that, after all, truly are most important in the face of great and continuous change and in the long history of human learning and survival.
We should not be surprised, Calder notes, that there is some self- promotion among the makers and users of books. In their own limited view, he says, schools measure the “worth of young citizens” based on their “facility in the cumbersome information technology displayed on the wafer of wood pulp in your hands.” Our education institutions have given us little awareness that “most humans have lived and died unable to read or write, and some bright individuals are dyslexic.” (This is a truly remarkable observation in passing—within a book that presumably has nothing to do with dyslexia or other learning differences. One wonders whether Calder and his famous father, Lord Ritchie Calder, have any personal experience with dyslexia, near or far. However, in my experience over many years, it is not at all unusual for such remarks to come from those scientists and writers working at very high levels, especially when dealing with big-picture issues.)
Driving the point home, Calder observes that “new technologies may soon make the art [of reading] as outmoded as oarsmanship for galleys.” Consequently, he observes that the “emphasis laid upon literacy by scholars who earn their living with written words appears self-serving.” In this way, if we take a very long view, then possibly we may begin to see the limitations of what we have been taught. Perhaps we may begin to see how even those who would appear to be the most educated could have special difficulty in seeing the kinds of trends that we are expecting.
Also, they may be so thoroughly entangled in the world of words, so “word bound,” in fact, that they may be unable to perceive major changes just outside the boundary of their familiar world.
(These prescient observations have greater impact today, when so many of us are now surrounded with small machines that can easily read to us, talk to us, fetch information for us, and translate languages for us—all at comparatively modest cost. This was previously unbelievable, even in science fiction, only a short time ago.)
The power and effectiveness of words, whether spoken or written, in whatever era or context, is not, of course, being challenged here. However, I do propose that the balance may be shifting (and may need to shift) in fundamental ways—that the important work of the world (the comparative advantage for some) will increasingly involve the sophisticated interpretation of complex images, using the newest technologies.
And, of course, we may very well see that we will have good reason to expect that the development of these new technologies and capabilities will be led by those creative visual thinkers (sometimes, or often, with learning difficulties or differences of some kind) who may have some special talent and experience in these areas.
Consequently, we might anticipate not so much a shift from one style of thinking to another but rather a new balance between the two sides—that is, the restoration of a balance and interdependence between two modes of thought that has generally been rare (except among the most highly gifted)—one visual and one verbal. We might encounter (at a very different level) a new form of uncommon symmetry in thinking styles between the two hemispheres of the brain, which is still a major consideration, although unfashionable in some circles these days.
Thus, it seems clear—taking the longer view—that some of the things that the best educated take for granted as permanent and enduring could actually be changing in fundamental ways. The “new technologies” that Calder talks about could very well be linked to the computer graphics, simulators, and information visualization that we have been talking about. If the trends move in the direction that I have been indicating, then some of the possible outcomes seem clear enough. When a new technology becomes widely available to amplify and extend some important human capacity, we may presume that it is only a matter of time before these potentials manifest in real consequences that will reverberate throughout our economy and culture.
A NEW CLASS OF MINDS
Calder’s view is only one among a growing number of observers who have begun to see the deep implications of the coming changes. More individuals working at the edge of these new technological developments, in the sciences as well as in the professions or business, are beginning to recognize the emerging patterns.
One example is Dr. Larry Smarr, who is an astronomer, a physicist, the former director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and the coauthor of a book called Supercomputing and the Transformation of Science. Over the years, Dr. Smarr came to see the likely impact of computer information visualization technologies and techniques. It is also notable that his observations include his perception of explicit connections between dyslexia and certain forms of creativity and high ability.
After we met at a computer graphics conference years ago, he sent me the following e-mail: “I have often argued in my public talks that the graduate education process that produces physicists is totally skewed to selecting those with analytic [mathematical] skills and rejecting those with visual or holistic skills. I have claimed that with the rise of scientific visualization as a new mode of scientific discovery, a new class of minds will arise as scientists. In my own life, my ‘guru’ in computational science was a dyslexic and he certainly saw the world in a different and much more effective manner than his colleagues. . . .” (Seeing What Others Cannot See, 2017, T.G.West, pages 101 to 105.)