Episode 139 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Chris Aldrich. Chris has one of the most multidisciplinary resumés I’ve ever seen: his background includes biomedics, electrical engineering, entertainment, genetics, theoretical mathematics, and more. He describes himself as a modern-day cybernetician, and I think of this interview as exploring what you might call “the cybernetics of communication.”

That sounds like a mouthful – but this really was a wide-ranging conversation that included cybernetics, communication, oral vs. literary cultures, indigenous traditions, mnemonics, and digital media, among other things. I was particularly drawn to Chris’s descriptions of indigenous cultures’ cultural development, and what was lost when Western literate cultures misunderstood their level of sophistication:

In indigenous cultures, which the West has broadly ignored, wholly to its detriment, before there was writing, everyone used words and speaking to each other as well as song and dance and movement to communicate information from one generation to the next. Most of the West thinks of small indigenous cultures and tribes as children and kindergartners. And in some part, it’s because of how they operate. So when, let’s say, settlers from Europe moved to the United States in the 1600-1700s, and they met the indigenous peoples of America, those people are not going to pull them into the fold and teach them everything they know. So the version of what they get of those cultures is essentially what you might give a kindergartner or a first grader as a basic education. And unless you become part of the tribe and the culture, you’re not going to see or hear about all of the advanced levels of knowledge.

And because it’s not written down, the West, as they move in, doesn’t see or appreciate the dramatically rich culture that has been passed down from one generation to the next because it’s all hidden and passed down orally. That’s, I think, probably the easiest way to concatenate the bigger story. But there’s an awful lot of subtlety and nuance there and trying to rebuild that, at least for me, as a Westerner not embedded in an indigenous culture, is very difficult. But it also means because it wasn’t written down and it was only passed on orally, a lot of it has just been wholly erased. It’s like this big hard drive that did exist at one point and now we just don’t have access to it because it’s been corrupted.

This includes ancient mnemonic traditions, such as the method of loci. Digital computing technology takes advantage of our spatially-oriented sense-making abilities, leading to developments like the WIMP operating system metaphor and, more recently, spatial computing.

As Chris pointed out during the interview, there’s little new here. In many ways, we keep reinterpreting the past and building atop what others have done — sometimes unwittingly. As he put it, “We’re all just imitating everything and very rarely are we actually innovating.”

This is how GPT-4 summarized the interview’s main theme: “Embrace historical knowledge practices to innovate modern digital information management effectively.” I can’t do better than that. If you design information systems, it behooves you to understand the broader context and history of communications. This episode offers a taste.

The Informed Life episode 139: Chris Aldrich on Cybernetic Communications