Stereotypes: Low Fidelity Digitization by the Mind
“Capturing” describes the process of selecting information by any machine. It describes how a machine chooses, and in what form it receives, its information input. How a camera “sees” and, subsequently, how it takes what it sees (aka information) and transforms it so the rest of the camera mechanics can understand, is an example of how a camera captures. Capture becomes particularly meaningful when we need to produce digital streams of data.
For the most part, as human beings, we are constantly bombarded with information. What we hear, what we see, what we feel, this is all information. This information comes to us in analog form. By analog I mean a continuous flow of data. Analog stands in contrast to digital. Digital information is not a continuous stream of data; digital data comes in quantified bits. The following might make analog and digital concepts more tangible. Our eyes see continuous analog flows of data, not digital still-frames; when we hear, our ears are exposed to streaming waves of sound not digitized bits. What do digital cameras, scanners, or voice recorders do? They break up the analog stream of information into smaller bits producing a digital sample of the original analog flow. This is necessary because computers, as advanced as they are today, generally struggle with taking analog information in. They make it digestible by changing it to digital information. Learning how the digital world of computer technology works with Professors Osborn and Ribes at Georgetown University strikes an uncanny parallel to readings on identity-formation, categorizing and social psychology.
Stereotypes, though neither honest nor facilitative in our increasingly multicultural world, may come from instinctual process mechanisms in our brains. This process of our brain capturing information is quite similar to how digital machines capture input in digital form.
Here’s an example of capture and digitization. You see a beautiful sunset and reach for your old faithful digital camera from 1996, take the shot and print it full size. You may be disappointed to see that the beautiful flowing clouds that were dusted in large brushstrokes of orange and pink are now little square-ish pixels with sharp edges barely resembling the silken horizon clouds. You then realize that the 1996 camera has a low-resolution setting compared to today’s digital cameras, meaning that the camera captures the beautiful scene and digitizes it into bits—bigger-than-you-like-bits—or pixels. Higher resolution pictures have the ability to increase the number of pixels per area so its digital image looks smoother than the one from the old camera. The point being, the process of digitization enables any processor or computer to create digestible bits out of the overwhelming (analog) stream of information coming its way. Whether it can create more digestible bits (like high resolution pictures or high quality MP3s) or fewer ones (like old resolution pictures or a low quality recording) is called the level of fidelity in capture.
Interestingly enough, social psychologists draw parallels between our brain and computers. When it comes to processing the bombardment of analog data coming its way, our brain, too, chooses to “digitize” and “sample” information so it can digest, classify and process everything. As early as preschool-age, our cognitive abilities start to create categories. Rocsh & Lloyed (1978) put forth the “cognitive miser” model. In the same way that visible light is partitioned into a color spectrum, categorization is a foundational mechanism used by humans to rapidly process the infinite amount of information that they receive (in Moghaddam, 2008).
Evolved from categories, stereotypes can be said to stem from a natural digitization our cognitive computers use to process information. The “cognitive miser” is of course an oversimplified model of our processing skills; it has been complemented by George Kelly’s (1955) “constructs” and other similar amendments. The question this raises is how we should battle or align this natural socialization such that it does not sow seeds of prejudice.
Without the increase of mobility and its consequent globalization of human society today, we may have had little need as humans to contact or fairly perceive the other. Civility being what it has become today, however, requires modifications to our capture methods. It may take millennium to effect change on the neural level, if possible at all. For the sake of peace and stability, it is important to understand the underpinnings of how our minds capture information—for better and for worse.