Sunday, October 19, 2014

An Aesthetic Odyssey: Technology as Art and Science

So far in this blog we’ve looked at media and technology from both artistic and scientific perspectives.  I want to step back for a moment and try to tie these perspectives together.  What is the relationship, if any, between art, science, and technology?

As a writer, I like to delve into original meanings of words (or etymologies) for insight.  Take the Latin word from which we get art’:ars,’ which simply means ‘skill.’  When we think of art, we often think of an artifact, an object of appreciation.  But art includes much more than that.  It also involves practical skill, creative activity, imaginative expression.  Why, after all, do we use a phrase like “work of art”?  As John Dewey points out in his book Art as Experience, we call something a “work of art” because work went into it—not work in a mundane sense, but creative work.

The Aqueduct Bridge of Segovia 

(image from Wikipedia)

Now the ancient Greek word for art also happens to be the root word for ‘technology.’  This word is ‘techne,’ which also means  ‘skill—especially technical skill’ or ‘technique.’  Technology, in this Classical sense, is not separate from art.  Technology is art!

Think of the many technologies the ancient Greeks and Romans created: Classical architecture, aqueducts, clay pots and cups, armor and swords.  These technologies were artistic creations that required incredible technical skill—and hundreds of years later, it still shows to this day, as anyone who has gazed upon the Roman ruins of Europe will testify.

Today, we occasionally retain this ancient affiliation between art and technology when evoke the term 'industrial art.'  Sometimes we refer to mechanics, technicians, garment technologists, and other vocational workers as skilled tradespersons or freelancers of the industrial arts.  However, in the age of mass production and consumerism, we tend to forget that there is (or should be) an art behind the creation and use of technology.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 

by Robert Pirsig

(image from his Metaphysics of Quality website)

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes illuminating dialogue about why we need to revive this understanding of technology as art.  Among my favorite conversations in the story is one that takes place between the protagonist and an instructor:

"Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you'll see the difference.  The craftsman isn't ever following a single line of instruction.  He's making decisions as he goes along.  For that reason, he'll be absorbed and attentive to what he's doing even though he doesn't deliberately contrive this.  His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. . . ."

"Sounds like art," the instructor says.

"Well, it is art," I say.  "This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural.  It's just it's gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. . . ."

(From Chapter 14 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig)

As a side observation, I believe this artistic understanding of technology is one of the main reasons Apple has given Microsoft a run for its money over the last couple decades.  Leaders at Apple understood that technology is not only an artifact; it’s an aesthetic experience.  Apple took aesthetics seriously, doing research on ergonomics and design in addition to programming, hiring liberal arts graduates and artists as well as computer scientists and engineers.  The result, thus far, has been not just useful but also aesthetically pleasing technology.

Aesthetics of Apple in comparison to other computers (image from Alex Baxendale's Blog)

We see how technology relates to art, but what about science?  Art and science are not the same thing, but there is a family resemblance.  While art uses skills or techniques to express creative work, science uses methods to derive precise knowledge.  In fact, the word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word, ‘scientia,’ which means ‘knowledge’—especially knowledge that involves separating and parsing elements (think of controlled experiments that require sorting dependent and independent variables).  John Dewey, in Experience and Nature, put the difference between art and science this way: science is a more restricted or controlled kind of art, the scientific method being “the art of constructing true perceptions.”

So art uses technology to develop creative techniques.  Science uses technology to construct precise knowledge.  Think of how a painter uses paintbrushes to develop brushing techniques.  Or how a neuroscientist uses fMRI scanners to construct neurobiological knowledge.

In the end, I would argue that neither art nor science can be separated from technology.  We need technologies to do art and science.  In turn, art and science often create new technologies.  Today we see emerging art forms like digital cinema and better scientific instruments like particle accelerators.

We can take this last line of argument further.  Maybe, just maybe, it was the very invention of technology by our ancestors that made art and science possible, not to mention our own survival as a species!  Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke certainly hinted at this possibility in that famous “Dawn of Man” scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the primate leader learned how to turn a mere bone into a hunting tool.  Nothing less than great human skill (like the art of hunting) and knowledge (including the science of technology) flourished as a result.