Alien objects

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A critical & creative thinking activity

Essentially, a version of a traditional design object analysis activity, this is a creative exercise that introduces students to the idea that all objects can convey meanings; meanings which can be clear, obscure, shifting, ephemeral, long-lasting, trivial, profound, widely understood, narrowly received, lost – and more. The activity can be run with any number of variations, but the one presented here is set against some dystopian future in which all the inhabitants of planet Earth have abandoned it, leaving behind only their manufactured artifacts. At some time subsequent, an alien civilisation finds abandoned world and sends down a landing party to explore. The biggest puzzle they face is trying to make sense of the objects they find around them and trying to get a sense of the beingsthat made them.

Once the scenario has been played out, the students are presented with a number of unusual objects that the students – in the persona of alien archaeologists – have to interpret while trying to come to conclusions based solely on deduction and applied reason (critical thinking). The students are asked to examine the objects and try to determine a number of elemental factors:

  • What is the object? – What does it do, what is its primary function?
  • Is the object necessarily functional? If it’s not functional, then is it in some way symbolic?
  • What elements of the object are functional (if any) and which elements might be described as decorative (if any)? How do you know?
  • Based on its construction, could you say if the object would have been a prized object among the beings that made it?

The students must try to avoid all statements that are based on tacit knowledge, such as ‘it’s a musical instrument’. (An alien civilisation might not have any concept of music.)

The deeper the students immerse themselves into their alien roles, the harder it becomes for them to recover any meaning from the objects. Ultimately, some students come to see that it’s probable that no manufactured object could ever possess an intrinsic meaning that could been universally understood in isolation of any understanding of  the culture that created it.

In a similar vein…

What would a machine for drawing conclusions look like? How would a machine that could get a camel through the eye of a needle unharmed actually work? Find out here: