Blade runner blues
I subscribe to the Daniel Dennett theory that consciousness is founded in language. (As a visual person I found that idea really surprising, but Dennett’s modestly titled tome Consciousness Explained convinced me.) Note that, while language is a form of communication, only humans (as far as we know) have language: That is, the ability to create narrative, whether truth or fiction. Lots of animals — and even some plants — communicate, but they do not have language and they cannot create a narrative.
Anyways, I am exploring an idea that modern humanity is an amalgam of separate species. I am not talking about the Neanderthals, who (it now seems) we absorbed into our race 40 thousand years ago. I am talking about more recent events. Front runner, in my estimation, is the agricultural revolution, which some say is the greatest genetic disaster to afflict humanity. Before that, our ancestors were taller, stronger, faster, had better sight, and (apparently) were more intelligent. (I am not sure of the evidence for the latter, but hey…)
One modern legacy is possibly evident in the way different people use language and the different ways their minds work. Some simple examples include pronunciations. I encountered it at an early age when we moved from cosmopolitan north London to Christchurch, in those days an icon of south coast provincialism. (Many older locals in the 1960s were unable to read and write. Their offspring, who attended the same school as I did, learned their parents’ strange pronunciations, but that is not what I am talking about here.)
Dissecting the species
Take dissect. Half the people (I have no idea what the proportion is really) pronounce it to rhyme with bisect, despite the two Ss. I come from a sub-species that learns (or attempts to learn) the underlying rules of things so we can extrapolate in new situations. That includes seeing a new word in a book or magazine, when we can attempt a pronunciation based on its spelling. The other people cannot — and they will not. (You can try it as an experiment. They will not do it!) They wait until they hear someone say it and they then copy that pronunciation, no matter how bizarre.
The thing is, they are right! (Arguably.) I am wrong at least half the time because English has more exceptions that words that conform to the rule! So, in what sense are these things rules? They are rules because people like me, who have comparatively small memory capacities, need to grasp rules to navigate the world. Our speech sounds odd to the other 50 percent, who label us ‘London intellectuals’ or an equivalent derogatory label. (As in, “You don’t need to take any notice of what he says, he’s a London intellectual.”)
I imagine that their minds are like computers, with huge arrays of lookup tables and unconscious indexes for rapid retrieval. Not only do they remember pronunciations that way, they navigate the world that way. However, there is no understanding behind their words. Like the replicants in Blade Runner, they are not fully human.
The Nielsen Norman corporation publishes a regular series of articles on computer usability. It is specific to web sites, but much of it is more generally applicable.
Many of the skills needed to use computers aren’t highly useful in slaying mammoths. Such skills include remembering obscure codes from one screen to the next and interpreting highly abbreviated form-field labels.
However, that study was with educated personnel in businesses in the USA. In Britain, most people have no problem at all remembering obscure codes from one screen to the next and interpreting highly abbreviated form-field labels. (That is overstating it, I realize. They do have problems with it, but a properly designed interface is just as difficult for them because they are unable to take advantage of its greater usability.) ‘Clicking around’ is exactly the skill needed for using ‘social media’ web sites such as FaceBook. Incidentally, FaceBook has one of the least usable interface of any program on the web, yet it is also the world’s most popular program. That fact sheds light on the point I am making here.
By carefully labelling buttons and other user interface elements, and by structuring the interface in a logical hierarchy, you do nothing to improve usability for low literacy computer users. And, in Britain, that is most computer users, especially users of social media. They learn a computer-user interface either by getting someone to show them the click sequence or by clicking at random and, when they find something they like, they remember the click sequence that got them there. It sounds impossible to the educated individual, but – contrary to Nielsen’s findings among educated workers – the uneducated have extraordinary memories. Show them something once and they remember it forever. They have no need to make written notes. (That is just as well because many cannot construct a meaningful sentence.) And they have no understanding of what they are doing. They simply remember things.
A radio is a radio and a mobile phone is a mobile phone
Understanding is another aspect that separates the two sub-species.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating imposing arbitrary classifications on the world just to create artificial order. (That can be a useful technique in what computer programmers used to call systems analysis, but it does not help much in understanding the world.) Several times I have made the mistake of referring to a mobile phone as a radio phone or a mobile radio. “I don’t know what you mean,” is a common response.
Obviously, a mobile phone is a kind of radio, otherwise it would not work. However, that is only obvious to an individual with a specific kind of background and, I believe, a specific genetic natural history. To those of the other sub-species of humans, a mobile phone is not a kind of radio. A radio is a radio and a mobile phone is a mobile phone. Every name for a thing is like a person’s name; it is an arbitrary word or phrase that represents a specific item in the world. It is not made up of parts and it has no relation to any other thing in the world. That is, the name or phrase (mobile phone) has no relation to any other name or phrase (radio) (unless by coincidence) and the actual item (a mobile phone) has no relation to any other actual item (a radio).
Another example in computer usability relates to Windows 8. A tablet, in the minds of the masses, is not a PC any more than a mobile phone is a radio transmitter: “…the very command label had misleading information scent for some users; they thought of the Surface as a tablet, not a “PC.””
Like the replicants in Blade Runner, you cannot easily tell the two sub-species apart. Phillip K. Dick, who wrote the novel on which Blade Runner is based, pinpointed the genetic disaster that has been overtaking humanity steadily (or maybe in fits and starts) for some thousands of years.
A forum discussion in which I mentioned this article elicited a response that, as far as I understand it, compared my stance with that of the Nazis. (It was not one of those yob type responses by some bored teenager. It was from a thinking individual who I know.) The Nazis claimed to be attempting to improve the genetic quality of the race, while doing the opposite. (I have never met anyone who is not in favour of improving the race. Why else are we here?)
I am certainly the type who lies awake at night worrying about the genetic degeneration of the race, almost as though I am part of the government, which obviously I am not. I suspect that is because, in our hunting group heritage, anyone who survived to 40 was the government, or part of it. (I am sure it is also because, back in the early 1970s, it is what everybody talked about.) I reckon a root cause of the frustration many of us feel in modern society is that nobody has any real influence on the direction it takes. Liberal democracy has many great advantages, but that is one of its flaws.
One of the things that struck me rather a lot of years ago now was that many of my fellow hang glider pilots were not left-leaning ‘London intellectuals’ like me, but bordering on Fascist. Why did they fly hang gliders if not to: 1. Demonstrate their genetic superiority to the common man in the street and 2: Set an example to the world to demonstrate that you no longer had to be rich or enlisted to fly? Sadly, while the cost of hang gliders has never been lower in real terms, the difference between rich and poor has grown so large that, if you are really poor, you cannot fly hang gliders. (One very good pilot said he flew for the great view. Yeah, right.)
Interestingly, a sci-fi series in the 1970s magazine Glider Rider made the point that, while it is generally good to support the strong and the brave, you have to make room for the artists, philosophers, and the ‘supporting cast’ (to use a film analogy).
Nevertheless, it seems to me that, as hang glider pilots, we have a duty to behave as if we were the world government, even though we are not. A futile gesture, maybe, but what else is there?
You only live twice (We each live for only one day and that is the key to immortality)