What colour is that?
Is the “red” colour I see, the same as the “red” colour you see? I believe anyone that has stopped to think about question this deeply will have started to have their existence unravelled. It is a question explored in this video by VSauce.
Red is the name of the colour we know in our language and culture. If you mix red with a little bit of white you would get what we call pink. Most people in the west would call that colour pink, but it is just a lighter red. If you mix green with a little white you get a lighter green. People may call it lime green, mint green, leaf green, or a whole host of other descriptive versions of green. But pink is pink and not red. In reality pink isn’t real, it does not feature on the spectrum of scientific colours. However the fact is, in language, in our culture, it is pink. We can add descriptions to pink too - deep pink, rose pink, etc. Likewise we can call variants of spectral colours like red and blue totally different things too - azure, cyan, magenta… The point is there is a heavy influence by our culture. So much so that if you show someone from the west the colour pink, they will almost always choose to use the word pink to describe it, and not light red. This is far less so with green or blue.
Now think about red again. Now you see it as red, you think. But how much can you trust your minds interpretation? Say I am colour blind, or I have some difference in how my brain processes that wave and sees it more as yellow. Well in this case, we would never know the difference in our experiences of red. You would be seeing red and calling it red, I would be seeing yellow and calling it red. Even though our experiences are totally different, we can get on as the language keeps us in sync. It becomes irrelevant in communication terms that our experience is different as we have agreed to label the experiences the same thing so when you point to the red colour and say “red”, I can agree.
Now say you learnt to call red “red” but when I was growing up, I learnt to mistakenly describe the colour red with the word “yellow” and somehow I got through my life thinking the colour red was called yellow. Now we have a problem. Our experience is the same, but our communication is out of sync. Now when I see the red light at the crossroads as we speed towards it, I say to you “the light is yellow”, and boom you crash the car.
A small digression: Colour constancy is the phenomenon whereby our brains fill in what we expect the colour to be based on experience. See this article (and image within): There are no red pixels in this image.
There have been studies that give evidence to suggest our gender results in different experiences of colour too. That there is some element of evolution between visible electromagnetic wavelength inference. Here is National Geographics article on the topic. So now we have previous experience, cultural heritage, our gender and our own brain affecting our current conscious experience. Imagine the potential difficulty describing colour between opposite sexes of distant cultures having experienced different colour sets! Even assuming we could speak a common language fluently!
Let’s make this more complex now than wavelength interpretation. Let’s add some humanistic qualities.
The meaning of objects and language
You and I are stood looking at a flower.
To me the flower was the same species and variant as the flower my first girlfriend gave me one day. At the time I was deeply in love, the first love I experienced. I was young and no one had given me a flower before. I am filled with love at the time, almost overwhelmed by happiness. Now, seeing that flower again a decade later it reminds me of this experience. Now I feel nostalgia, I feel happiness from my memory causing the same chemicals to release in my brain.
You know the flower as the flower that was thrown to your mothers casket as it lay in a hole in the ground. It wasn’t her favourite flower, just the choice of the funeral service. You had been around that species of flower before, but never had it so central in your experience as when it was framed by the wood of the coffin and the border of dirt. When you see the flower again you remember that your mum was taken when you were only 14, and she only 40, by the disease. You feel a hatred of the disease and the cruelty of nature. Seeing the flower again causes that hatred to rush back. You think of the frailty of life.
Now, if we meet at a place where this flower grows abundantly and begin a conversation, it is likely upon seeing it that our mindsets are in totally different places. We may not speak about the times when the flower was in our lives or even acknowledge it to each other, but it affects everything we do talk about. I speak enthusiastically and you speak cautiously. We leave each other never knowing that we were never on the same page and our experience was totally different. Even if we do speak only of our experiences featuring that flower, we by definition have differenct current conscious experiences still, only this time we know they are different.
Gender, and upbringing will play a role in this too. Think on this interesting and compelling concept, though a pretty extreme idea, Schrödinger’s Rapist. It suggests that for some women, there is a worry upon first meeting a man about whether or not he will try and harrass or assault them. And that this thought happens by default as a result of the world we live in. For each unknown male a women meets, he is both existing as a rapist and not as a rapist simultaneously until such time as enough experience has been gained to prove one of the two options.
Now how many people this affects I don’t know, but let’s say this is true for the sake of argument (and being male I will never truly know), think of the implications that it has in emotion and experience of new meetings. I certainly know I do not think of the possibility that unknown women I meet may attempt to harrass me. A more obvious example would be racial profiling, whereby we see black people getting harassed far more frequently by police than white people.
Regardless of examples, the point is we can only converge to understanding through communication and time. The longer we get to know each other and the more honest and open we are, the better we can predict someones actions, intentions and receptions. Our understanding of situations is based on not only the situation itself, but the entire history of our existence, our culture, our heritage and ancesters, our stories, relationships and everything that happened since the dawn of time, through all evolution and societal development, to the point of this particular situation that we find ourselves in now. This will be different for everyone and we will never truly know each others interpretation of it. The best we can come is to take the time to tell our story as best we know it using the best language we can to attempt to get the key points and emotions of it into someone elses mind.
If we struggle to understand our connections IRL, what about our data?
In the world of data, we often ignore the stories. Databases are often snapshots of situations. Once you take a snapshot you forget the history. You forget the changes, the developments, the additions and subtractions. The more we rely on data in our existence, can we afford to delete the data’s history? We do have technologies like git, which takes some methods to remember the data’s history and changelog. We have time series databases which include the dynamism of causation. But it is time to start to think of important situations where the story of the data is as important as the data itself.
Let’s take political data for example. We cannot necessarily trust data which records who voted for who in the last election, to model people’s entire political opinions. If someone is flittering between issues supporting the Republicans and then the Liberals, taking a snapshot and seeing in the last election they voted for Republican does not allow you to infer hardly anything other than that is what happened on one day. If we can build the story of how they came to vote for Republican on that day, we can start to be able to respond to their opinions with code. Maybe they recently moved to a Republican demographic area and simply wanted to fit in with the new crowd? Or maybe they have steadily seen changes across their environment which have carved out new political alliances?
We have to remember what use cases we are talking about here. The whole Cambridge Analytica Scandal was a very dangerous manipulation of this idea which people don’t want replicated. And there is the whole right to be forgotten idea too to consider.
We need to start thinking of dynamic ways to tell stories of data, and keep that stories purpose true and not saturated with tangent information. At the same time, we need to be aware of peoples privacy and how we can manipulate data morally. How to do this… well who knows. Maybe that is a job for AI…