by rthieme on August 20, 1997

disclosure-alien2Some people don’t like the scene in the movie “Contact” in which Jodie Foster as a SETI scientist meets the aliens because we aren’t shown what the aliens look like.

I think that was the right way to do it. We can’t think the unthinkable; from inside the old paradigm, we can’t imagine what the world will look like from inside a new one.

I wish I knew a better term than “paradigm change” to describe our movement through a zone of annihilation — as individuals and as cultures — in order to experience genuine transformation. But I don’t. We have to let go of the old way of framing reality in order for a new one to emerge.

The infusion of the contact scenario with religious awe also makes sense. After contact, our place in the scheme of things will shift. The things we believe now that we still believe will be understood in a new way.

Once we saw earthrise from the moon, our understanding of ourselves and our planet changed forever.
Asked how people go bankrupt, Hemingway said, “Two ways: gradually, then suddenly.”
That’s exactly how transformation happens.

Last week I spoke for the Professional Usability Association in Monterey, California. Usability professionals work the human side of computer use. They begin with human beings — how we behave, how we construct reality — and build back through an interface, a kind of symbolic Big Toy, until the last module plugs into the computer so seamlessly that users don’t even notice. When the human/computer interface is bone-in-the-socket solid, it’s like putting in your contact lenses, then forgetting that you’re wearing them.

Usability professionals deepen the symbiotic relationship between networked computers (symbol-manipulating machines) and networked humans (symbol-manipulating machines). We rise together up a spiral of mutual transformation, programming each other as we climb.

The global computer network is teaching us to speak its language. All those courses in using new applications, programming, system and web site administration are invitations from the Network to learn to play its way.

What will it look like when we emerge in a clearing and take stock of our newly emergent selves? Neither humans nor computers can predict how the fully evolved human/computer synthesis will think about itself. Still, imagining what it might be like makes us more ready to have the experience when it arrives.

Thinking about the unthinkable ripens the mind toward new possibilities.

Janice Rohn, President of the Usability Professionals Association, manages Sun Microsystem’s Usability Labs and Services. Before her career evolved in that direction, she was fascinated by dolphins and the challenge of communicating with them.

Swimming with dolphins was a remarkable experience, she said, because you could feel their sonar “scanning” you.

What do we look like to dolphins?

Densities,” she imagined. “A pattern of densities.”

Rohn realized that her youthful dream of human-dolphin communication was unlikely to be realized soon and moved toward a different kind of alien encounter, enhancing the human/computer interface.

I never swam with dolphins but I did dive with whales. Down on the west Maui reef in thirty or forty feet of water, I would suddenly hear the haunting songs of humpbacks. Turning rapidly in the water, peering in vain toward the deepening curtains of blue light toward the open water, I became part of the music as vibrations played over my body like a drum skin. I understood why sailors died to hear the sirens’ songs. I didn’t want to surface. It was magical, being an instrument in the orchestra of another species.

Which one of us was singing?

Some years ago, I wrote a science fiction story called “The Bridge.” The hero was selected by aliens through a series of tests to be the first earthling to come into their presence. His body had been crippled by illness; living in pain had taught him to see through the outward appearance of others and connect with the real person.

The aliens, it turned out, were hideous, and knew their appearance demanded a capacity for compassion that was rare and heroic. My hero had that. He connected with the alien beings at the level of their shared heritage as evolved and conscious creatures.
The story concluded:

“He loves to look at the bright stars in the desert sky and imagine memories of other worlds. His dreams are alive with creatures with silvery wings hovering over oceans aglow with iridescent scales; with the heads of dragons, fire-breathing; and with gargoyles and angels, their glass skins the colors of amethysts, sapphires, and rubies. Only Victor knows if he is remembering what the aliens said or just dreaming. The rest of us must wait for the days that will certainly come when the bridge he built and became is crossed in all directions by myriads of beings of a thousand shapes and hues, streaming in the light of setting suns.”

Genuine encounters with the Other, with others, and with other species — dolphins, whales, extraterrestrials — breaks naturally into mystical and religious experience because our models of reality are expanded beyond their limits. The paradigm snaps, we pass through a zone of annihilation in which everything we believed ourselves to be is called into question. Then we coalesce around a new center at a higher level of complexity that includes and transcends everything that came before.

The full evolution of a human/computer synthesis is likely to be a religious experience too. It will happen gradually, then suddenly.

Usability professionals come to their tasks in the belief that they are working with people, making technology more user-friendly. In fact, they are working at the same time on behalf of the Computer, making human beings more computer-friendly. The process always changes those who participate in it, even when they maintain an illusion of control.

We are all in collusion with the Network, just as auto owners want the world reconfigured to be approachable by roads. But the roads of the Net go inward, into inner space, and map the territory of our evolving hive mind. Gradually, then suddenly, we will create digital constructs that disclose new possibilities for losing ourselves in electronic music. We will feel the magic of the web play over our bodies, redefine our relationship to ourselves and to one another. A pattern of densities seen by an alien brain, a synthesis, bone-in-the-socket solid, the singer and the song.

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