Draft Text for Comment: Borders of the Real and Multiple Futures

Draft 1.1
I am working on this draft text for publication in the next issue of Leonardo Reviews Quarterly

Would welcome comments ( sorry I havent posted Mike Punts companion text-will do so when
he oks this)

Curiosity, Borders of the Real and Multiple Futures
Michael Punt in his LQR editorial raises some interesting issues about how the future is determined by the way that human curiosity drives us in some directions and not in others; and how much discussion of the contribution of science and technology to society are often framed in closed and convergent ways that preclude many possible desirable futures. Where invention drives creativity towards solutions to pre-defined problems, usually within areas identified as current society priorities, innovation opens up discovery space and multiple possible futures. He draws on Nowotny’s book Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future (1)
to state “The argument of the book is that science and technology have produced an uncertainty about the future which represents a rupture from the mid 20th century belief in a unidirectional and causal link between innovation and invention. “
Punt then asks :”What might be the consequences of a social or institutional structure in which the proliferation of innovation naturalises the belief in possible directions rather than a commitment to a singular and agreed direction?”. The innovation research community has been asking this question for a number of years with the realization that the 1970s ‘linear model” from fundamental science to applies science to economic development has largely broken down and that the ‘triple helix’ of government, academia and industry no longer dominates the innovation landscape. This uncertainty about a unidirectional future has provoked the establishment of a much more complex network of innovation actors.

The issue of the directionality of curiosity has been on my radar for a number of years since I read Sundar Sarukkai’s essay “Ethics of Science”(3) where he challenges many of the tenets of the ‘ethos’ of science which disconnects the path that science takes from the fact that human curiosity is embodied, cultural, social, collective and enactive. He also points that curiosity can be motivated by any number of factors and that in some cultures doubt rather than curiosity can be fore-grounded. The question ‘does matter exist” drives different agendas than “what makes the colors of the rainbow” or “how to replace oil as the dominant source of energy”. The embeddings of curiosity as a cultural value he emphasizes is illustrated by the way that curiosity evolved from a human sin at the time of Saint Augustine, to a virtue in twentieth century science. Even Francis Bacon denied being motivated by curiosity but rather by human charity.

One of the gedanken experiments I sometimes like to suggest is in the context of the search for intelligent intelligence (SETI) in the universe. The SETI community has been engaged in practical speculation for how to communicate with extra-terrestial intelligence (CETI) for over 50 years. In collaboration with the SETI Institute, Leonardo organized a number of space and the arts workshops (4) in Paris which examined some of the issues and whether the arts and humanities could bring a new perspective to the thinking ( almost all SETI and CETI activities have been carried out by scientist and engineers from a traditional positivist scientific perspective). Often inter-stellar message construction proposals rely on the assertion that scientific ‘facts’ are universal so that civilizations around other stars share underlying epistemology with our own; examples are that the structure of the hydrogen atom, the prime numbers, general relativity. The conclusion is that the way to initiate conversation is to rely on these shared fundamental epistemological facts. Yet a cursory examination of the history of science gives pause. For two civilizations around two different stars to communicate, they must overlap in time (given light travel times) but the two civilizations may be in very different stages of their development. In our cultures recorded science is less than 5000 years old, and adequate communication technologies less than 100. What if we were communicating with a civilization that whose science and technology had been developed for over a million years? What facts and methodologies would we really share? I could be convinced that we share the prime numbers, but what if their science does not make use of numbers? What if instead of developing technologies they cause the evolution of their own organisms? What if their ‘reality’ and ours don’t overlap signicantly? Is there only a single ‘future’ that can be taken by science in a given time frame? The answer is clearly: no.

The ‘phase space’ of what is knowable is huge, and what is known at a given time very contingent on the history of science; so it’s the phase space of whats of creating predictive models. It is curiosity in our current science that drives discovery, but as pointed out in detail by Nowotny (1) the societal context determines the routes that are enabled by institutions with their, generally, short term objectives. No government committee today, if we placed them in 1860, would in their right mind have funded research in electricity and magnetism at a time when improving the steam engine was a priority. The Nobel prize in physics this year was just awarded to three astronomers who discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating due to what is currently called ‘dark energy’. A Nobel prize committee official made the error of stating : “this discovery has no practical value “ (5). I suspect that he will be proved wrong, though I doubt dark energy will prove to be a solution to our terrestrial energy crisis.

Another way of looking at this is that we can only invent solutions for the “real’ world, but the borders of the “real” world are fuzzy and evolving. Innovation expands the ‘real”. Iwan Rhy Morus in his collected texts “Bodies/Machines (6) states: “we live in an age simultaneously fascinated and terrified by the boundaries surrounding the human body and what might happen there…” and goes on to assert that the variety of ways that such boundaries have been constructed, managed, resisted, sustained is a rapidly evolving one today. He points out that “In the 19th century Victorian Futurism flourished because the « borders of the real were so weak “. Victorian science was confronted with the realization that the “real” world was other than they thought; electricity and magnetism revealed other fundamental forces at work in the world, photography and the expansion into spectral ranges such as X Rays and Infra Red profoundly altered the view of the ‘real’ that humans inhabited. At the turn of the century radioactivity, then relativity theory and quantum physics continued this process.

Linda Henderson in the new edition of « Fourth Dimension in Art and Science » (7) to be published by our Leonardo Books in 2012 looks at how the concepts of the fourth dimension was a driver of curiosity for both artists and scientists before the second world war and how these ideas are seeing a resurgence today. The concept of cyberspace as developed for instance in Michael Benedikt’s 1993 (8) collection of essays lays out the ways that the ‘real’ expands to include the virtual space created by on line constructions. And she argues that ideas embedded in string theory and modern cosmology re-inject vitality into those ideas. She notes: « dark matter and dark energy offer a telling reminder of the relativity of our direct perception and the fluidity of the « boundaries of the real ». She talks of a ‘meta-reality’ that draws on an expanded understanding of the physical world as the combination of the world accessible to the senses and senses tightly coupled to instruments.

Artists and Scientists have different curiosities in part because their cultural, socio-political, context is different but also because their objectives are different. Artists seek to create work that is accessible to human cognition, work that creates meaning and sense in the context of the individual exposed to the art work. Scientists seek to create work that is independent of human cognition and has global if not universal meaning and sense within the system of science. Yet both artists and scientists work at moving the ‘frontiers’ or ‘borders’ of the ‘real. By coupling artistic and scientific curiosity together one can imagine other routes that science might take. Physicist Alan Lightman (9) notes « By definition it is extremely difficult to imagine worlds outside our experience. For that we are as likely to receive guidance from our artists and philosophers as from our mathematicians and scientists », Physicist Jean Marc Levy Leblond in his book “Science is not Art” (10) argues that one of the values of artists involvement with science is the potential to “re-thicken” understanding by seeking “to re-establish the link between the concepts constructed by science and the reality from which they were abstracted “.

This brings us back to Michael Punt’s argument. He states: “The reason following Nowotny’s argument must be clear: the reification of innovation for market advantage has discouraged attention to the nature of invention; its inevitability, its insatiability, its material and poetic forms and its purpose in the human order of things as the apparent control of the future is weakened through innovation. What Nowotny may be describing could well be too entrenched in institutional and State structures that support research to be reversed but that is not the same as relinquishing agency in the expression of our curiosity.”

We need both invention and innovation to both thicken the real and alter its borders. To mix my metaphors, where invention helps us survive in given ‘niche’ defined by a given future, innovation diversifies the niches and possible futures. How one translates this into governmental funding, or university hiring, priorities is the problem that Nowotny seeks to address and is a hard problem. Evolution (and the economic market) are not ‘clever”, they discard genetic innovations that don’t improve survival in a given niche at a given time. Evolution, and the market, are short sighted. On the other hand as the niche changes, evolution draws on the underlying reservoir of genetic variations. One would hope that governments, and universities, could be ‘clever’ and long sighted and enable curiosity driven research for both invention and innovation to create this reservoir of variations that can lead to other possible desirable futures’: and universities need to be a reservoir of possible variations that may prove crucial as human society mutates. I don’t have a clue however how to convert this into “metrics”.

One Comment

  1. Although “search for intelligent intelligence (SETI)” is funny, I assume you meant it the way the acronym was intended. Of course, when one thinks about super-computer driven economies and hiring board decisions, I can easily understand the slip. I guess the problem is that we don’t remember the history of our ancestors, even though our innovations and inventions are intricately dependent on them and their ideas.
    Ideas (or innovation or invention) are invariably based upon other ideas. The metrics that elude you could be based upon the number of iterations an idea needed in order to get itself to a certain point. One example might be the written word. As the technology of writing progressed, humans went through iterative stages of participatory design. The metric of the keilschrift would necessarily be lower than that of the Gutenberg press, and the comment I am now writing would have a higher metric than writing a reply using a word processor from the 90’s.
    As far as communicating with other(worldly) cultures is concerned, I think that the human race is probably doomed to never personally meet its neighbors. Not because 2012 is right around the corner, but because the window in time is so incredibly miniscule – it would be like finding water on Mars: by the time you have discovered it, it is already gone.
    To that end, I think that a new approach is necessary – one where we stop trying to find other civilizations in the stars in the hope that we will succeed and can feel better because our innovation and neugier has been justified, but rather assume that we are alone in the universe for the time being. As the only sentient species around, it is invariably our duty to inform other sentient species in the future that we existed, and to do that we need to undertake outreach and use our resources to communicate with a language transcendant of financial instruments and political machinations: ART.
    To bring my comment full circle, it is my sincere hope that humans endeavor to make space a context for art instead of a pretext for war or justification for another Really Big Telescope.

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