Thursday, 19 June 2014

Sham, When the Talk was Given

This time last year, I was preparing to give a talk on xenolinguistics, which I honestly don't know that much about. The talk itself was not a massive success, for two reasons, I think:

First, audience interaction. I'm used to very interactive teaching and GMing, and I was geared towards bouncing ideas around with the audience. But the vast (perhaps overambitiously large) lecture hall didn't lend itself to that, and neither did many of the audience members until after I'd finished talking. I'm not sure how it felt to everyone else, but it seemed quite flat and dry to me as a result.

Second, my ideas were admittedly not that clear. Or rather, I had a clear central idea, but bundled it in too much other junk, dozens of small samples of non-human communication, in an attempt to give sufficient practical examples to back up what I was saying. This might have worked alright with sufficient audience interaction to twist and shape all the junk in a practical direction, but oh well.
Explaining abstraction abstractly may also have been a mistake.
A third obstacle, though one I predicted and found unavoidable anyway, is that it's quite difficult to judge how high to aim a random public talk. Too simple, people get bored. Too challenging, they get lost. But when they're all at different, unknown levels? How can anyone aim effectively for that? I'm sure it can be done, but I haven't figured it out yet.

The reason this has popped back into my head now is that I saw this great article by Ian Bigost (it opens with a long, detailed summary of the TNG episode 'Darmok'; if you've not seen it yet - Ali - then rather watch the full episode first instead), which goes in a slightly different direction from where I went, but still hits exactly the core thing I wanted to focus on.

A fairly common criticism of the alien communication in 'Darmok' is that it doesn't actually seem to make sense, that it doesn't seem like it could ever be a practical, day-to-day language. But that's exactly the point of it. The writers didn't sit down to create another whole language suitable for human tongues and brains, completely from scratch. They just wanted to open enough of a crack into something very, very foreign, to give us a taste of just how foreign things can get. We have to take it on disbelief-suspending faith that, somehow, it can work, and then move on to the intended mental destination: Thinking about how we'd wrap our heads around something that alien if we ever encountered it in reality. Because in reality, we often run into things that very obviously are really there, happening, and which continue to work fine whether or not we've figured them out yet.

Feynman had an analogy about science being like trying to figure out the rules of chess from scratch, merely by seeing the pieces move, which fits here nicely too. 'Darmok' only shows us the end product, the movement of the pieces, the sounds the aliens make. Figuring out what it all means and how it came to be that way is the challenge it represents. Trekkies who write it off as unworkable are committing the same error as those who write off the warp drive as inherently impossible: A strange mix of the argument from ignorance with failure to distinguish between fiction and reality. (The whole point of science fiction is to explore what-ifs and could-bes, not to definitively map out reality for practical use.)

So, my core idea: All communication is representative. Something stands in for something else. There is absolutely no reason that the words we're used to, or in the way we're used to them, or discernable words at all, should necessarily be the best or only way to share abstractified concepts. I think Bigost's article is worth promoting for illustrating, better than my talk did, exactly this point. It's a pretty basic idea, but no real non-human communication can be possible without it.