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Making Contact

‘The more we’re forced to look at someone else’s perspective, like on a television, instead of our own, the less perspective we have on the world and the galaxy around us. When contact is made, the alien says humanity isn’t ready.’ ~ From io9

The quote above is from an excellent review of a great movie that was based on a great book by a scientist whose understanding of the human condition was uncanny. To read it, go to the end of the article below. But before you do that, stick around, you might find this interesting.

The movie we’re looking at is Contact by Robert Zemeckis. The book we’re looking at is Contact by Carl Sagan. Fascinating pieces of culture, both of them, to each their own.

Contact the movie is a bittersweet film, perhaps too bittersweet. It plays out like a fairytale, simple and stereotypical in many ways, using exhausted tropes and devices to tell its story — the idealistic scientist, the charismatic preacher, the jealous and antagonistic boss, the evil government security man, the movie love interest between chalk and cheese — all of them way too familiar.

But if you don’t let the cliches distract you, the movie delivers, and how.

Although elementary in its philosophy, Contact the movie is profound in a roundabout way, targeting the subject of the media and the effect they have on a person’s perspective. How they enable people to tell a story. How they shape, bend and distort said story, preventing it from being told true.

The media are tricky like that, both platform and sinkhole at the same time. Both track and corral, gate and prison.

The insight is presented in an io9 article written by an astute writer whose take on the movie is brilliant. Twenty years after Contact’s release, this writer’s review sheds light on the method (the way the movie was put together, the devices used to convey its message) and what it hoped to achieve. Robert Zemeckis, he argues, used the media to tell the story, and in turn told a story about how the media affect human perception. He explored the idea of shared knowledge and our capacity to disseminate it on a mass scale via multimedia platforms — how prescriptive and powerful and in many cases limiting the process can be, despite its technological sophistication.

Zemeckis, it seems, is working magic in the film. He makes a compelling statement on the human condition and the presence of life on other planets, interesting themes in themselves, but overfamiliar, so he pushes the envelope even further. He ups the ante to explore the way we perceive the world, investigating the manner in which we can ever hope to know it. He asks important questions between the lines: how can we truly expand our horizons and make contact with a new reality; what is holding us back; what is preventing us from making the next giant leap that will redefine our world?

It’s a stroke of genius on the filmmaker’s part, perhaps intentional, perhaps intuitive and subsequential. Sometimes a simple story can deliver a most profound message, if played out deftly, and Contact achieves just that. Its hidden premise, it transpires, is the significance of personal perspective. True breakthrough cannot be achieved without it. The notion of seeing something through a lens i.e. through the eyes of another person/organization/dogma, is limiting in and of itself, says the movie. One needs to break out of shared perspective and be present, see things for oneself. Register events through one’s own apparatus. Peering beyond the veil is a private endeavor, one that involves no records or proof, no massive corroboration. The only ingredient that matters is to be truly and totally present, and to observe the world with an inquisitive mind.

It’s a great insight, one which rests on the backdrop of the movie’s surface premise i.e. the conflict between science and religion, knowledge and faith. Contact tackles that issue straight up, exploring the clash of the two belief systems, making arguments for and against both of them. It starts off by taking a giant stab at religion, the obvious choice, depicting science as the soundest of the two approaches. Then, as the plot progresses (pun pun) the tables are turned, showing science up — a model that doesn’t seem to have all the answers after all, despite its grand claims. On the contrary, it has shortcomings, enormous ones, many of which resemble religion’s.

In fact, faith seems to hold the upper hand by the end of the movie, shown as a redeeming, all too human factor, very comforting in the wake of uncertainty, in this vast and stressful world we live in.

But Zemeckis goes a step further. He suggests that science, too, deep down, relies on faith — faith in its tenets and axioms, in the principles that constitute the scientific dogma.

It seems that these two adversarial systems have more things in common than separating them, or so goes the implication.

Thus, Contact takes an odd stance. It flips the argument on its head, giving an unexpected and vexing nod to faith, and that’s a legitimate stance to take, although a little surprising for a movie based on a book written by a science champion.

Thankfully the movie goes far beyond that, too, criticizing dogma at large. Both science and religion are eventually and between the lines shown up as doctrines promoted and perpetuated, to each their own, by perspectives shared between their respective followers, by ideas as revealing and informative as they are blinding and debilitating. Science, the more transparent and intricate of the two models, fails to illuminate the world at large, despite its grandiose promises. There is a cut-off point, after which the system falls short. It fails to deliver absolute truth just as religion failed. It works against itself after a certain point, too strong for its own good, blinding its followers with its teachings, deceiving and misleading its champions and advocates with theories that become all-encompassing and dated and resistant to new information. Its reliance on canonical methodology sabotages its mission in the long-run, its great asset — a concrete, shared corpus of information — turned into a liability, too massive to handle, too entrenched in its tradition, its lens reduced to a set of blinders that hide the bigger picture.

Science, like religion, argues Contact, prevents humanity from making sudden giant leaps into the unfathomable. The scientific model relies heavily on a step-by-step methodology that involves painstaking experimentation and research, all of which builds toward a consensus, a process which, while a tremendous tool for validation and fact-checking, takes ages to play out.

Progress is hard to come by, and although it often takes everyone by surprise, it involves grueling, time-consuming effort, most of which is directed at a wall of commitment and familiarity, challenging everyone’s investment in the shared and established premises of the world.

A very time-consuming process, as progressive as it is resistant.

The movie presents the limitations of scientific dogma by placing the scientific community in a bind. When contact is made with an alien civilization, scientists around the world gather up to deal with the challenge. Their voices are lost in the din of preachers and demagogues, a cacophony of derivative earthly transmissions, each fighting for its fifteen minutes of bandwidth and the world’s ear, but science ends up spearheading the operation. The assignment is clear: decode the alien transmission and follow the trail ahead.

Yet the scientists are unable to break through. They decrypt the message, unveiling a set of building instructions for a gargantuan machine, and then assemble that machine (a transportation device for a single passenger) and fire it up, but that’s about it. Despite their technological sophistication, with all their computers and cameras and recording devices and supertech gadgetry, they fail to launch, so to speak, or, to be exact, fail to register the launch. Something amazing happens within the machine, but they are clueless to it, resistant to all claims to the contrary. Only the passenger knows, but they don’t believe her, and her apparatus has malfunctioned, wiping out all physical evidence of the event.

And so goes the denial and backtracking. Committees are assembled to examine and judge what happened, the failure of the project, the peculiar and uncorroborated testimony of the passenger. Everything is deemed a lie, a hoax, or a delusion. The failure of technology to measure the world behind the veil is a clear sign that the world behind the veil doesn’t exist. The possibility that the available apparatus was and is inadequate, not up to the task of registering the new frontier, doesn’t cross their mind, and even if it does, they sideswipe it, putting on a show of omniscience for their peers and subjects, keeping a lid on things. They believe only what they see, and because their apparatus doesn’t reveal what is there, they see only what they believe, what they expect to see. And the word of one single lone voice who has seen what is out there with her own eyes is not enough to change their viewpoints.

And the world remains the same, all on account of a science fallen short, the very tool designed to liberate the human mind from the bonds of ignorance and inertia.

The irony is tremendous. The implications vexing.

What that means is that we, for all our knowledge and sophistication, are likely to miss the bigger picture. We can’t take the extra step and make real CONTACT, not if we rely so much on what everyone else sees. Our manner of perceiving reality through the eyes of others is limiting, standing in the way of our anticipated quantum leap. Our systemic need for a scientific consensus cripples us, or at least slows us down.

Small steps are good, giving everyone time to process and analyze and explore the new information, but they’re extremely frustrating, and by frustrating I mean both annoying and hampering.

Science, argues Contact the movie, is the smart, sharp cousin of religion, a player suited for a world built on knowledge and information, yet it is equally oppressive where sudden breakthrough is concerned. Better equipped to guard against the nonsense spewed out by charismatic preachers and demagogues, and more permissive and empowering than religion, and certainly more inventive, it still fails to provide all the answers. It is a slave to its consensual nature, bound by the limitations of its technology at any given time. Blinders and peer pressure, scientific doctrine, dogma, that’s what it translates to when the limits are pushed beyond what is known.

And there you have it. The limitations of scientific dogma. Contact the movie may be a fairytale-looking film, but it makes quite the statement, plenty unexpected.

Contact the book, on the other hand, it takes a different path.

Written by Carl Sagan, a man with a vision of Earth as a pale blue dot in the vast expanse of space, the book presents Earth in transition, a planet on the cusp of groundbreaking, extraordinary change. The story focuses not on the media’s effect on humanity per se, although their pervasive effect is important in the grand scheme of things. The story goes beyond the media, takes a wider turn, unfolding over a decade-plus. It becomes a chronicle of sorts, an examination of a game-changing era. There are no overfamiliar cliches — no convenient love stories, no limits to where the characters go and who they meet with. There are no budget constraints or plot limitations designed to tell a story in two hours on screen. The set is planetary, worldly, spanning the globe, the characters sweeping the continents in search for answers. The premise is grand by effect and scope, by sheer interaction, in the way books can be (and movies strive to be, but often fail).

Above all, there is a distinct idea in Contact the book, and it involves humanity coming together under a so-called Machindo: the way of the machine — a global endeavor that unifies the nations and cultures of the world in their effort to unlock the mystery presented by the alien transmission. The alien message contains instructions on how to build an extraordinary machine, an opportunity which the planet eventually seizes, and the odyssey begins, the planning of it anyway.

The result is a global mobilization unlike anything ever seen. A new economic business model is born, one that brings people together, redefining the world as we know it.

It’s a terrific outlook. Sagan’s premise is clearly optimistic, full of trust in humans and our ability to come together under the banner of a grand project. It’s a refreshing point of view, especially now, in this increasingly cynical, entropic world we live in.

The story is also clearly in favor of science, though not in a didactic or fundamentalist manner. Like in the movie, Sagan’s scientists don’t have all the answers, on the contrary, their powers are limited, their aptitude compromised. The narrative is exploratory, toying with the idea of something more personal and spiritual, something able to discern what no dogma can, but it errs in favor of science, our best available tool, while at the same time introducing the element of faith and personal belief.

A different beast altogether, Contact the book is an equally inspired and inspirational piece of work. Combined with Contact the movie, it provides a hell of a ride for those who wish to be entertained and challenged at the same time.

A few words about Carl Sagan. He was a visionary who predicted the rise of pseudoscience, the comeback of sectarian politics and fundamentalist religion, and the legalization of drugs, among other things. His jargon-free style made science and knowledge and critical thinking accessible to millions of people round the world.

I was lucky enough to have been exposed to his work early on, first through his iconic TV series Cosmos, then through Contact the book. I still haven’t read The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, his treatise on scientific knowledge, but I will soon.

I hope others will do, too — delve into Sagan’s work with boundless curiosity.

It’s well worth it.

In the meantime, check out Contact the movie. It offers a distinct take on the human condition, one that will stay with you even if you’re not fully aware of it.

And, please, read the io9 review below. It lights up the movie with great insight, unlocking the genius of Robert Zemeckis and his team, reminding us that even fairytales have profound meanings, at least when the set and setting are right, the storytellers up to the task, and, most crucially, the audience members ready to hear them.

From the bays of Pearl Coast, and in conjunction with your ever-watchful Spin Doctor,

Dive in crystal waters, find a shiny pearl, and (don’t forget),

Eyes open, mind sharp.

For the review that inspired this article, click here: