The informal theinformationsuperhighway book club reads Ted Chiang & # 39; s The Great Silence
We're reading this week A very short story, The Great Silence as we near the end of Ted Chiang & # 39; s exhalation collection. This story asks questions about how we connect with nature, how we think about innovation, and where new ideas come from.
We'll be finalizing the remaining two stories in the collection next week, and then it's time (unfortunately!) To switch books. I hope to announce the next book shortly at the book club.
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Read the great silence
This is a fairly short story with a simple message. The narrator is a parrot that speaks about mankind's search for artificial life elsewhere in the universe. The parrot watching these actions reflects why humanity spends so much time looking for intelligence elsewhere when it is intelligent itself and is right next to us. The devastating line that Chiang delivers comes to an end:
But parrots are more like humans than any alien species, and humans can watch us up close. You can look us in the eye. How do you expect to recognize an alien intelligence if you can only listen from a hundred light years away?
The author offers us some obvious points to think about in relation to environmental degradation and species extinction, and these are so obvious that I think any reader can somehow guess how the story relates to these issues.
So instead I want to link this discussion to a topic that theinformationsuperhighway readers care about, and that is the pursuit of science and innovation.
For me, Chiang not only criticizes our contempt for the animal species around us, but also an innovation community that is constantly striving for big and "brilliant" discoveries when so many small and local discoveries have to be made.
We're investing billions of dollars in satellites, telescopes, and radars to get a glimpse of a strange world somewhere in the galaxy. And yet there are deeply strange worlds all around us. It's not just parrots – the earth is full of species that are incredibly different from us in physiology, behavior and group dynamics. What if the species that is most alien to us across the galaxy is right under our noses?
Of course there would be big headlines to find even a single-celled organism on another planet (provided there was any way to discover such a life). But that's exactly the kind of narrow-minded, novelty-seeking behavior that Chiang points out here.
Still, innovation can be a strange animal. It's not difficult to look around the valley these days and be dismayed by how far a large part of the industry is. We create more “intelligent” products than ever before, but major social challenges and scientific boundaries remain completely uncovered. It is easier to raise funds to start an upgraded handbag company with a new brand and marketing strategy than to build an engineering team to advance quantum computing.
There are certainly many valid arguments for using our money for "more rewarding" jobs. However, fresh ideas that change the industry sometimes come from the strangest places, and even frivolous products occasionally lead to fundamental technological advances. Facebook as a social network may be a time sink for its users, but its enormous size also triggered all kinds of new data center infrastructure technologies that have been largely adopted by the rest of the technology industry. Solving a reckless problem became a means of solving a deeper problem.
In the end you have to look for answers. Don't overlook the obvious around us and don't get involved in the everyday challenges that may just be the source of innovation. Maybe it doesn't help us to find out the communication of the parrots. Or maybe exploring this area opens up completely new ideas for communication and understanding of the neural language patterns. We cannot know until we walk the path.
To put it aside before we conclude: Exhale is a collection of previously published short stories, but Chiang manages to work fairly closely into this piece in his arch symbol of breath and air:
It is no coincidence that "striving" means both hope and act of breathing.
When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give our thoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are our intentions and our life force at the same time.
It is a symbol that we saw most clearly in Exhalation (the short story itself, not the entire collection) that we talked about a few posts ago. It is a beautiful little motif and Chiang embeds it well to create a sensitive connection between humans and animals.
Some questions about Omphalos
For the next and penultimate short story Omphalos, here are some questions to think about as you read the story.
- What does belief mean? How does belief influence both our views of our place in the world and our approaches to science and the scientific method?
- Does existence and existentialism come from external symbols or internal rationales?
- How do religion and science mix? How did Chiang design this narrative to make it easier to answer this question?
- The story focuses on the dynamics of archeology and astronomy – why these two disciplines and not any other area of science?
- What is the ultimate message in history? Or is there more than one that can be read into the text?