In classic science fiction there are two ways to realize you are talking to aliens. One is by finally seeing the interlocutor is a shimmering, seven-foot being. The second is by analyzing the characteristics of the signal itself. In the 1950s SF movie This Island Earth, the hero receives plans for building an “interocitor” from the mysterious Electronic Service, Unit #16, producing an advanced device no human being had conceived. He deduces that the source, Electronic Service, Unit #16, is alien.
The Island Earth scenario is a remarkably accurate application of information theory. True discoveries result from the unanticipated when the apparently random begins to take on an emerging pattern. When things don’t make sense at first then gradually do, you are onto something. As a Khan Academy instructor explains it:
If I select a random word from a book … you will have no clue what I might be … if, instead I give you a random word from a book and ask you to predict the word that follows it … you’ll notice its likely easier to guess this word. If I give you a sequence of two words and ask you to predict a 3rd word it becomes more predictable still. … Claude Shannon’s measure of entropy … as you recall, is a measure of surprise. Entropy can be thought of as the number of yes or no questions, or bits, required to guess the next word. As predictability increases, the information entropy decreases.
First, the surprise then the understanding. But not before one receives the first random word. This is known as the principle of maximum entropy. “In ordinary language, the principle of maximum entropy can be said to express a claim of … maximum ignorance. The selected distribution is … the one that admits the most ignorance beyond the stated prior data.”
The most important step in building the interocitor — and thereby discovering the signal — was being willing to order the kit from Electronic Service, Unit #16 in the first place. That is, to start from ignorance. Only by daring to try — starting at the point of maximum entropy — was it possible for the movie characters to start decoding the signal. Real discovery consists not in what is forgotten or predicted, but in coming upon the never imagined. Keats conveyed the sense of true”news” in his famous poem.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Flash! The Pacific exists. The moons of Jupiter exist — even though they had been circling the gas giant eons before Galileo first saw them through his telescope.
On January 7, 1610, Galileo wrote a letter containing the first mention of Jupiter’s moons. At the time, he saw only three of them, and he believed them to be fixed stars near Jupiter. He continued to observe these celestial orbs from January 8 to March 2, 1610. In these observations, he discovered a fourth body, and also observed that the four were not fixed stars, but rather were orbiting Jupiter.
You wouldn’t look if you already knew there was nothing there.
From the point of view of information theory, the future is an alien signal. But unlike the characters in the movie, the Chinese, Russian, European, and American elites are unwilling to start at a point of maximum entropy. Rather, they want to control the future and load the dice by constraining it with their legacy theories. That is because the Woke, EU, Chinese Communist Party, and the Kremlin are convinced they already know the future and the only difficulty is in getting the recalcitrant deplorables to go along.
In succumbing to the control urge, they achieve the opposite. By overspecifying the future, they make true discovery harder. As a result we don’t hear the alien; instead what we hear is Bernie Sanders doing his best impression of a spaceman. But it’s still a voice from the past. Observers get less information from an experiment when they rig it to prove what they already believe. But the explainers can’t help it and rig it they must.
Being free of network costs can ironically foster innovation because it allows us to start at the point of minimum bias. Consider the history of broadcast media versus the Internet:
Many years ago … Nicolas Negroponte … predicted the downfall of broadcast television. His explanation was simple. Everything is going to go digital because Moore’s Law will make digital cheaper, and since video is digitally bulky, it’s going to be easier to send it through cables than over the air. The content will follow the cheapest path. To be more comprehensive, he said that the phone companies and the broadcast companies would switch places because it was ironic to him that voice was going over wires and video was going over the air. It hasn’t finished happening, but the simple beautiful truth of it is becoming manifest.
What digital also did was allow new ideas to emerge which would never have passed muster by the studio moguls or the evening news editorial boards. That’s why the internal combustion engine was so revolutionary. It freed people from the train. It freed travel from control. You could go where you belonged. This doesn’t mean networks are bad, only that you need only what you need.
Today the political elites are in a crisis resulting from an expected future that didn’t happen. The End of History didn’t pan out; Russia and China failed to join the liberal democratic club; the EU fell apart. The global world failed to last. But Brexit and the defeat of Hillary did not spur them to listen; instead, it inspired frantic efforts to reimpose absolute control via Chinese 5G, facial recognition, Google surveillance, G7 pacts against hate speech, and the NYT witch hunt against white supremacy.
Is it any wonder they are failing? That depression is rising among youngsters and social tensions are increasing? Not only are they jamming themselves, they are suppressing the small still voice that whispers in the heart of undiscovered genius. As the political elites gnaw at the ends of their stale agendas it is hard to remember that the future is still full of hope, danger, love, opportunity and things yet undreamed of. Will we send ourselves an interocitor? Maybe. But if we’re not free to listen for the signal then the world will most certainly be stuck with a politically correct and strictly rationed turboencabulator.
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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.