17/02/2017

the dust of life

How much of human psychology could aliens reconstruct from our art?

Let's say they have every work of fiction, but no documentaries, no datasets, nor even any archaeological digs to go on. Nothing uncontrived.

So, postmodern media would be very useful to them: as a proof of our self-consciousness, but also since it gives clear indication of what we regard as markers of fiction. A knowing wink to camera is data about fiction given within fiction. Anything which is spoofed, anything which a loud narrator makes reference to, is a trope and can thus help to file away convention in favour of mimesis.

But I think the answer is "surprisingly little". As Picasso says, "art washes off the dust of everyday life": i.e. it is wilfully unrepresentative and heightened, and not psychologically real. Even if we gave the aliens all good art ever, there would still be large and systematic inaccuracies.

The biggest missing things are repetition, our biological overheads, and inarticulacy. Also, watching our great tragedies, which are our greatest works don't you know, they would probably not infer how rare meaningful suffering actually is. To make the art hoard an accurate picture, we would need to include 1,000,000 copies of every mumblecore film, to balance out the unrealistic coincidence, existential transcendence, and wit.





My mate thinks that they'd learn a lot about us exactly via our deluded fiction: it would show our ideals and our prejudices, and that, since these are where we live in our heads, this goes a long way. And that is true, for a human reader scoping out another new group of humans. But you can't make inferences about delusions if you don't know the truth, and I see the aliens as quite likely to mistake mere tropes for real behaviour. For instance, 5% of films are horror genre. I don't know exactly what proportion of lives are horror lives, but it is somewhere south of 0.006%.

(One delusion they could easily skewer, starting from no knowledge, is the rate of coincidences our stories rely on. All you need is probability there.)



Another friend comments, after the initial question but before my further spraff:

If we found another civilized world, the greatest challenge would suddenly change from the difficulties of sailing the cosmos to the impossibility of understanding the literally alien.

I don't believe convergent evolution will apply in intelligent aliens: and so how could we understand a culture of [nonindividual hiveminded] mindworms? Aliens may well suck our atmosphere, drink the oceans and move on without any interest in our culture whatsoever.

So, respectfully, a better way of phrasing your question might be: what could a distant, far-future human learn about Earth culture, with only postmodern texts to hand?



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