Teaching aliens about us with movies?

This weekend, Robbert Dijkgraaf, ex-president of the KNAW, was featured in the series ‘onze gids’ in the Saturday glossy of the daily newspaper Volkskrant. The format of the series is the selection of ten cultural artifacts by the week’s selected ‘guide’, followed by a short rationale for the selection.

Dijkgraaf selected the documentary ‘Powers  of Ten’, explaining his selection as follows:

‘Een briljante korte documentaire die de wereld van klein naar groot laat zien door in en uit te zoomen van twee luierende mensen op een kleedje in een park. We zien het kleedje het park worden, het park de stad, de staat, het continent, de planeet aarde tot de sterrenstelsels. En daarna terug naar af en verder naar binnen, de cellen, de moleculen, de atomen. Als ik een alien in een paar minuten zou moeten uitleggen hoe wij de wereld zien, zou ik dit draaien.’ Documentaire: Powers of Ten, Charles en Ray Eames. 'Als ik een alien in een paar minuten zou moeten uitleggen hoe wij de wereld zien, zou ik dit draaien.'

‘Powers of Ten’ is a striking instance of a particular epistemic approach, a way of knowing that erases even as it reveals. It is a powerful statement about a specific view of the universe, and in that sense, it would indeed be a way of showing how we look at the world (more on this ‘we’ below).

The epistemics of “Powers of Ten” are conveyed through two visual conventions:

  • The view from nowhere
    • the assumption that the viewer is not to be addressed or recognized, that the place of the viewer is not relevant to what is shown. What is there, is there. The possibility of a point of view is not taken up–it is the point of view of no point of view, “the culture of no culture” to quote Traweek on physicists.
  • The seamless zoom
    • the possibility of going from one image to another with a smooth transition. The consequence of this is that any shift required is completely erased. For example, the need for different imaging technology to produce information at different scales is made invisible and the consequences of getting closer or farther away are ignored. The seamless zoom puts forth the possibility of translating any scene without effort, without any kind of friction, translation or reparation. By using a scale or standards, any differences can be rendered fluid, points of view are translatable, movable, and effortlessly so. The seamless zoom is the universal translator of visuality.

I’ve written about this topic, drawing on work of Donna Haraway (the God trick) and Smetlana Alpers (points of view in Dutch painting), and the argument is further worked out in this paper, presented a couple of years ago at an ESF event on visualisation (Imaging Technology, Truth & Trust, Norrköping, 17-21 September 2012).

That this visual esthetic is a long-time favourite of Dutch physicists is also noted in my paper –Dijkgraaf himself showed it in his episode of “Zomergasten”–a Dutch tv show which has much the same format as the Gids series, but based on television and film fragments.

What is noteworthy in this instance of Dijkgraaf’s selection is the framing in terms of ‘what aliens would learn about how we see the world’, if this film were put forth. This worldview is that of a kind of science that silences the messiness of the quest for knowledge, the arduous and pleasurable use of technology, the contextual nature of knowing, the crucial interaction between creativity and reason.

imagesslides121203_CBOX_eames1Photograph of the ‘making of’ Powers of Ten, showing the artifice and crafting that is otherwise cropped out of the shots.

Aliens would not get a sense of the friction between accounts of the world–nor indeed of the existence of multiple accounts. Aliens would be served an image of human knowledge as something effortless, seamless, translatable along a single axis of metric magnitudes, and available without having to notice or think about how we are able to see all this. A scientific “zipless fuck”, to extend Erica Jong’s powerful identification of a key motif in Western culture in the 70s, formative years indeed. Could aliens encounter a fleshier epistemology if the programme were extended from one documentary to a movie night?

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