“Arrival” Author Ted Chiang Talks Folk Biology

On March 27, FIU’s School of Computer Information and Sciences and the Department of English co-hosted a public lecture with guest speaker Ted Chiang. Chiang is a critically acclaimed author whose novella “Story of Your Life” was the basis for the 2016 Oscar nominated film Arrival. His lecture, titled “Why the Brain is Not a Computer”, focused on the common misconceptions of Folk Biology in the media and how they hurt our ability to tell a narrative. His main focus was the Sci-Fi genre, but he explained how folk biology hinders story structure in general. The lecture provided insight into the methodology that Chiang uses to create stories.

Chiang used the lecture to air his many grievances with the contemporary use of Folk Biology. Folk Biology, as he explained it, is when society attributes incorrect colloquial ideas to actual science, for example the idea that people cannot get fit unless they eat meat. Not only is the statement false but the longer the mindset persists the harder it is to remedy. His lecture was focused on one example of Folk Biology in particular and it is a plague found in Sci-Fi narratives. It is the popular phrase that “the brain is like a computer.”

Chiang explained that the phrase says little about the capabilities of the brain, but a lot about society’s close relation with technology and how instilled it is in our culture.  He explained how this cultural fascination with comparing the human brain to the highest form of technological advancement has been popular in human history. People used to compare the brain to a library, then to the inner workings of a clock, then to  a steam engine, then . . . you get the point.  The reality, as Chiang points out, is that the Brain is complex and different from the computer, or any of these technological acheivements. He did not want to discredit what a computer was capable of, but rather have people understand that the brain is an entirely different powerhouse in of itself.

Chiang showed how the metaphor limited writers’ ability to create something that would actively challenge their audience. Chiang himself is no stranger to writing stories about the human mind’s capabilities, the aforementioned “Story of Your Life” dealing with theoretical concepts of the brain’s understanding of language and time.  Chiang feels that when a film like The Matrix or a television show like Dollhouse treats the human brain like a computer, it is often lazy and does not further develop any understanding of the world. He considers it a limited, narrow view of how a genre like Sci-Fi can challenge the perception of the viewer.

Chiang’s view of Science Fiction was influenced by icons like Gene Roddenberry and Rod Serling. They believed that not only is Science Fiction a legitimate form of literary expression, but that is able to address aspects of the human condition that other genres could not address. And although he does believe that Artificial Intelligence can reach the point where computers are self aware, the ease with which media portrays this task will make it harder for society to reach such a point. He wants the genre to take chances and apply concepts that could expand the understanding of the audience. Otherwise, Chiang believes Folk Biology will negate all the progress for the genre.

Daniel Valladares is an intern for the FIU Film Studies Program for the Spring 2017 semester. Daniel is seeking a Film Studies Certificate as an English Major.