Intimate Science and Hard Humanities: A Call for Open Observatories

Re-reading the Origin of the Species by Darwin, on its 150th anniversary, one is struck by the lucidity and humility of the argumentation as well as the transformative power of its conclusions. Yet the scientific theory of evolution is still not widely understood or accepted by most people. Arrhenius first wrote about the impact of increasing CO2 on global climate in 1896, and yet at the highest level of government the issue is still argued until recently. Somehow the ambitious enlightenment projects of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution are incomplete. Scientific knowledge is not culturally appropriated. In many ways science has become a “cargo cult’. Many people use the cell phone for daily survival, but could not explain the difference between a photon and an electron. Governments want high technology employment growth, but don’t see why you need theoretical or fundamental scientists.

I believe that one of the reasons for this is that common science does not make common sense. As a scientist the vast majority of the information about the world I study is mediated through scientific instruments, almost none is captured directly by my naked senses. I can tell when my instrument is hallucinating, I develop new words to describe phenomena I encounter that have no counterparts in daily life, I can manipulate concepts that are not grounded in my experience as a child. But this intimacy with the world mediated through instruments is not the daily experience of most people. I think one of the interesting new developments is a generation of artists that is now collecting data about their world using scientific instruments but for their cultural purposes. Not only are they making powerful art, they are making science intimate, sensual, intuitive.

A second reason for the disconnect of modern science and public understanding is that science is carried out mostly in guarded (mostly male) monasteries. Science education is usually done from the top floor not from the ground floor. There is little willingness to consider that a larger public could be involved in the doing of science and through this change the direction and content of future science. This institutional isolation of science is a historical accident of its development, particularly because of its recent close connection to government and industry.. In the west, much of this is due to the emergence of the new social contract between  science and government following World War II, and its close association with state military and economic supremacy.

This social contract is breaking down. But there are signs that kinds of “micro science’ are developing, a new form of  peoples science that is made possible by the internet and the new public access to scientific data and instruments. Science producing communities have ownership over the knowledge they help generate, and this knowledge is locally rooted and meaningful. To coin a phrase, Micro Science is to the National Science Foundation what Micro-Credit is to the World Bank. I am not calling for a renewal of amateur science, but rather embedding mediated contact with the world in everyday life. Developments in locative media and ubiquitous computing perhaps allow us to look forward to a time when we can have a sensual relationship to mediated data, when scientific knowledge can be appropriated culturally and appear as a form of intimate knowledge.

I think that the encouragement of intimate science by artist and micro science at all levels of society are important components of the hard humanities. The hard humanities are the disciplines in the arts and humanities that will be essential to navigating the cultural transformation we face within the next two generations. Controlling climate change, abandoning our dependency on oil for energy, creating the conditions for sustainable development will require as deep a cultural transformation as our ancestors accomplished over tens of thousands of years in moving from agrarian to urban societies. The work of the Leonardo community in promoting art-science and art-technology collaboration is in a very real sense part of the tool kit for survival. We know what a landscape artist is, and indeed landscape artists over several hundred years have helped shape our cultural imaginaries of the relationship between humans and nature. But what is a “climate artist”? Two hundred years from now we will identify the climate artists working today who helped shape a new cultural imaginary that made possible the cultural transformations that we are beginning.

The hard humanities also include many of the social sciences which are suddenly required to be prescriptive and not just descriptive. Anthropologists find themselves in industrial innovation workshops, historians called upon to explain the ways that societies can transform themselves. Artists working with social scientists and scholars in the humanities are engaged also in intimate and micro science. As we re imagine scenarios for sustainable development, architecture and urban studies find themselves on the front lines as tools for survival.

Over recent months a number of us have been developing the concept of “Open Observatories’ which disseminate tools, techniques, data and knowledge for carrying out projects in micro science, intimate science, peoples science and crowd sourcing. (1) These open observatories would allow small communities to develop locally generated knowledge that can be the basis for local action to help these communities evolve rapidly and respond to the changes that will be needed to create a sustainable human society. Open observatories would include the work of artists collecting data for cultural and artistic purposes as well as community leaders and researchers seeking to find ways to mediate personally meaningful access to scientific knowledge. Finally Open Observatories might become the locus for societal retroaction on the direction and content of future science, and help establish a new social contract between science and society.

Roger Malina

(1)The initial network includes the PUC RIO Art Department, Leonardo/OLATS, Banff New Media Institute, Exploratorium “Invisible Dynamics” project, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore.
Text from November 11, 2008

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