Short docs to reframe reality: how evolution shapes us to be kind, how ex-cons interview for jobs, and how an AI thinks of "beauty" and "god"

A still from Memo Akten’s “A Brief History of Almost Everything in Five Minutes” (below)

A still from Memo Akten’s “A Brief History of Almost Everything in Five Minutes” (below)

The science website Aeon curates an extraordinary video channel, with documentaries, memes and animations full of wonder, deep knowledge, and curiosity. Something to refresh your perceptions, and your assumptions, at the end of yet another maximum week. Here’s a selected three from the last few months:

We should realise how much evolution has shaped us for empathy and sympathy

From Aeon: “One of the shockwaves from Charles Darwin’s idea that humans evolved from other animals was moral panic. If our ethics are not guided by an omnipotent and all-knowing god and, instead, life is driven by ‘survival of the fittest’ via natural selection, how could we possibly expect humans to behave with anything other than brash self-interest?

“Yet Darwin’s use of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was hardly meant to suggest that existence was a knockdown, drag-out fight – he was very clear that generosity, sympathy and all those other traits that give us warm feelings are central to human survival. 

“In this short video, the psychologist Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley puts kindness in evolutionary context, connecting his own recent neural-imaging work on compassion with Darwin’s view that sympathy is a cornerstone of human flourishing.”

How do you do a job interview, when you’re just out of prison?

From Aeon: “The stilted routines and formalities of the job interview can provoke a particular kind of anxiety in most people seeking employment. But coming to the table with a criminal record can make those tensions razor-sharp.

“In this observational short documentary, the Québécois filmmaker Nicolas Lévesque places the viewer inside training sessions for three men preparing for job interviews following their release from prison. Forced to confront their pasts in this stressful setting, fragments of stories, including their hopes for and apprehensions about the future, begin to emerge.

“Unvarnished yet empathetic, the film offers a sobering account of the overwhelming challenges that ex-convicts face when re-entering society.”

How an algorithm sees “god”, “nature”, “beauty”

From Aeon: “An unusually inventive instance of digital art, A Brief History of Almost Everything in Five Minutes is a sped-up excerpt from the hour-long multichannel video installation Deep Meditations. The London-based, Turkish-born visual artist Memo Akten created the piece by entering broad and abstract search terms such as ‘everything’, ‘life’, ‘love’, ‘art’, ‘god’ and ‘nature’ into the popular photo-sharing website Flickr.

“He then filtered the dataset through a deep-neural network, which used the inputs to summon what it understood to be visual expressions of these subjective human concepts, resulting in otherworldly and uncanny evolving images. The visuals were then paired with audio generated by another algorithm that absorbed the sounds of spiritual rituals from across the world.

“According to Akten, the piece ‘is intended for both introspection and self-reflection, as a mirror to ourselves, our own mind and how we make sense of what we see; and also as a window into the mind of the machine, as it tries to make sense of its observations and memories’.  For more digital wizardry from Akten, watch Gloomy Sunday.”

More from Aeon’s video archive here.