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Can apes really ‘talk’ to humans?

8 minutes

Send me home

13 minutes

The truth about algorithms

3 minutes

Lonesome Willcox

12 minutes

Jonah stands up

16 minutes

People have been trying to talk with apes for nearly a century. How far have we got?

Since the early 20th century, a number of curious (and sometimes ethically dubious) psychological studies have tried to figure out if we can communicate with great apes using language. In the 1970s, the answer was reported to be an unequivocal ‘yes’ after Koko, a female western lowland gorilla, learned to sign at her handler, a graduate student at Stanford University, using a modified version of American Sign Language. But more recent critiques of the Koko studies (and others) dispute the idea that great apes have had truly meaningful two-way language communication with humans. This video from NPR’s Skunk Bear offers a brief survey of the history of ape-human communication research, suggesting that ‘Can we talk with them?’ might be the wrong question to ask.

Video by Skunk Bear

Producers: Ryan Kellman, Adam Cole

What does freedom look and feel like after four decades wrongfully imprisoned?

‘It feel like, I went to sleep at 18 and I woke up at 60.’

In May 1975, 18-year-old Rickey Jackson was arrested in Cleveland, Ohio for a murder he didn’t commit. After being convicted, he spent two and a half years on Death Row and an additional 26 years in Ohio prisons, maintaining his innocence throughout. Jackson was finally exonerated in 2014 when a key witness recanted, claiming his eye-witness testimony had been coerced by police. In Send Me Home, Jackson reflects on his decades of incarceration from the vantage of his current life – one so overflowing with the things he dreamed of in prison, he sometimes doubts its reality. Using immersive 360° video technology, the film contrasts suffocating prison scenes with Jackson’s new life with his wife and stepchildren. While grateful for his freedom, Jackson can’t help but think of time lost, as well as the tragic flaws in the US criminal justice system, which has exonerated more than 150 Death Row inmates since 1973 and almost certainly executed innocent people. You can read more about Jackson’s case at Lonely Leap.

Director: Cassandra Evanisko

Producer: Roger Moran

Algorithms are opinions, not truth machines, and demand the application of ethics

It can be easy to simply accept algorithms as indisputable mathematic truths. After all, who wants to spend their spare time deconstructing complex equations? But make no mistake: algorithms are limited tools for understanding the world, frequently as flawed and biased as the humans who create and interpret them. In this brief animation, which was adapted from a 2017 presentation at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in London, the US data scientist Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction (2016), argues that algorithms can be useful tools when thoughtfully deployed. However, their newfound ubiquity and massive power calls for ethical conduct from modellers, regulation and oversight by policymakers, and a more skeptical, mathematics-literate public.

Director: Nice Shit Studio

Producer: Abi Stephenson

Dispatches from a cowboy past: a one-room classic country radio station (barely) holds on

Before KHIL was pulled off the air by its new owners in October 2018, the radio station for Willcox in Arizona had been broadcasting classic country music to the small town’s residents and passersby for more than half a century. While much of the United States has moved on from sparsely strummed songs of whiskey and heartbreak, such music still very much defines this remote place: the singer and Western star Rex Allen (1920-99) is Willcox’s most beloved native son, and the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum and Willcox Cowboy Hall of Fame its most notable attraction. In Lonesome Willcox, the US filmmakers Ryan Maxey and Zack Wright profile Mark Lucke, KHIL’s unlikely lone employee in the station’s waning days. Living and working from the studio, Lucke keeps the classic country crooners alive for the town’s mainly elderly population, who sense their heritage and way of life being buried beneath the Arizona dust. But while Lucke finds satisfaction in playing songs that lift the locals’ spirits, he has a complicated relationship with the boozy, ne’er-do-well characters that populate them, following his own abusive childhood.

Directors: Ryan Maxey, Zack Wright

Exit, pursued by Death: a young artist and rabble-rouser mines comedy from mortality

In her short documentary Jonah Stands Up, the US director Hannah Engelson profiles her friend Jonah Bascle: a creative, defiant spirit and New Orleans native who is dealing with a terminal heart condition related to his muscular dystrophy. The setup might sound familiar, but the short film and its subject are refreshingly subversive, refusing to fall into tired clichés about confronting disability and illness with bravery. A scrappy and heartfelt DIY production, the film uses animations inspired by Bascle’s artwork, footage of his standup comedy sets, and emotionally raw doctor’s visits to tell his story. Through Engelson’s tribute, Bascle is never presented as an inspirational force, but rather as the many things – a 20something artist, a disability-rights advocate, a rabble-rousing political candidate, a friend – he was in life.

Director: Hannah Engelson

People have been trying to talk with apes for nearly a century. How far have we got?

Since the early 20th century, a number of curious (and sometimes ethically dubious) psychological studies have tried to figure out if we can communicate with great apes using language. In the 1970s, the answer was reported to be an unequivocal ‘yes’ after Koko, a female western lowland gorilla, learned to sign at her handler, a graduate student at Stanford University, using a modified version of American Sign Language. But more recent critiques of the Koko studies (and others) dispute the idea that great apes have had truly meaningful two-way language communication with humans. This video from NPR’s Skunk Bear offers a brief survey of the history of ape-human communication research, suggesting that ‘Can we talk with them?’ might be the wrong question to ask.

Video by Skunk Bear

Producers: Ryan Kellman, Adam Cole

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Essay/
History of Science
A history of monsters

Monsters once inhabited the mysterious fringes of the known world. In our human-dominated present, can they still be found?

Natalie Lawrence

Essay/
Cognition & Intelligence
The elephant as a person

Elephants might have the necessary capacities for personhood – we just need to help them acquire the cognitive scaffolding

Don Ross