Dark Culture, why astronomers are embarassed and cutting down the tree of knowledge In Manizales, Colombia

Dark Culture, why astronomers are embarassed and cutting down the tree of knowledge in Manizales, Colombia

Roger Malina  http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3399-3865 

Manizales, Columbia May 13 2016

I am writing this in Manizales, Columbia during the Balance Un-Balance conference on Art and Climate Change ( http://www.balance-unbalance2016.org/ ). I gave a talk (http://www.slideshare.net/rmaliina/malina-bunb-manizales-2015 ) where I talked about the power and danger of metaphors. In particular I talked about the ‘tree of knowledge’ metaphor which has proved useful for many people for many thousands of years. But it is a real problem for working on certain kinds of problems.

In a tree metaphor, the leaves on different branches don’t talk together. But to solve climate change we need to have the scientists working in close collaboration with the artists and humanists, but also with the community leaders the politicians and the economists. This is very difficult when you organize yourself mostly around disciplines. For some problems the tree metaphor and disciplinary approaches are crucial and successful. But sometimes we need to work in a different metaphorical framework. The community of practice at the Balance Un-Balance conference was a hybrid mixture of artists, scientists and engineers, designer but also social actors like the Red Cross and economists. Tree structures are the wrong structures to enable these kinds of different people to mix.

Today the network metaphor is very powerful, because so many people are familiar with the network because of the internet, but also airline networks, disease spread networks and so on. In a network, nodes interconnect based on function. This is how it works in the brain where different regions in the brain interconnect depending on function. I am in an art science team studying this in Dallas with neuroscientists and musicians and an art historian and computer scientists. So maybe we need a network of networks metaphor.

Flying over Columbia, another related metaphor is the ‘field of fields’ metaphor. We know in ecology and agriculture that monocultures can be dangerous for survival of an ecological or agricultural system. So maybe we can think of knowledge in a ‘field of field’ metaphor? Some fields are fertile, others fallow, there is a variety of sizes. We know the value of wild areas. You can re organize the fields if conditions change.There are gates between some fields and fences around others. So how would we organize human networks within a field of fields metaphor. How would we structure organisations so they can be adaptive like fields of fields ?

In Manizales I also tried to explain why astronomers are so unhappy today. Astronomy was one of the first disciplines to be transformed by the big data revolution. Forty years what have astronomers discovered? That most of the universe is dark and does not emit light of any type (perhaps 95% of the content in the universe is either dark matter or dark energy). It is very embarrassing for astronomers. For centuries, and millennia, we have been studying the night sky with our eyes and telescopes, but we now know we have been studying the ‘decoration’ on the universe. The overall evolution and structure of the universe is driven by the dark universe, and we don’t know how to study it and its nature is currently mysterious. The decoration is interesting, but by just studying the decoration there are many things you can’t know. It is the same with human culture.

So by analogy I coined the term “dark culture’. Today all the humanities and politics of our planet is being transformed by big data. New industries are dominating the economics. We now talk of ‘deep learning’ through the use of big data to study and understand human activities, and even anticipating them. We know that for controlling climate change we must use big data. But what if 95% of what really matters to drive the structure and evolution of our human societies is ‘dark’ and isn’t captured in the big data today? How do we invent new observations and instruments that can study the dark culture and collect data on human things that are currently dark and maybe don’t emit light? What are important things are by their nature uncapturable in big data systems, how do we combine different approaches so that we can avoid the catastrophes of climate change?. How do we work in a fields of fields?

In 1992 our family friend, historian of technology, Dan Boorstin made a strange recommendation to NASA at the world space congress. He suggested they stop taking more data for a while and think about it. He pointed out that most data is never analysed, just stored. He argued that we are moving from a data poor to a data rich culture, and we don’t understand the implications. He said all the data Charles Darwin needed to transform our understanding of life, was in a series of note books that fit on his shelf. Today we are immersed in data, we have become a data culture, but maybe we are data rich and meaning poor, Dan Boorstin said. The hard problem, the wicked problem, is making meaning from data. But also understanding that much of culture is dark, and will never be captured by data. Dan called this an epistemological transformation.

To continue the dark culture metaphor, we know that in the countryside of Columbia there are fields on the sunny side of the valley that can be understood by studying what is illuminated by light, but others are on the shadowed side, or under the canopies of forests- and you need to go there to understand what is going on where light does not penetrate.

So dark culture is a complex mixture of cultures we have big data on, that maybe one day we will get data on, but others that maybe have to be studied in other ways that will never be captured in big databases.

At the Balance Un Balance conference Felipe Londono, the Rector of the University of Caldas in Manizales, host of the conference, announced an ambitious 21st expedition project, Caldas: Expedición Siglo XXI. It is named after scientist and humanist Francisco José de Caldas y Tenorio, who died 200 years ago this year and after whom the University is named. Caldas was part of several scientific expeditions including the ones with José Celestino Mutis and Alexander von Humboldt. He traveled across the New Kingdom of Granada exploring the newfound land, studying florafauna, geographymeteorology and cartography. Caldas contributed, not only to discover the huge wealth of Colombia, but  also fought for Columbian independence, and today he is remembered for his direct participation in the events that caused the cry of national independence, on July 20, 1810.

The themes of the Caldas regional expedition are to inventory and study the regional strengths in agricultural sciences, biodiversity and natural resources, natural sciences, engineering, technology and development, social innovation, law and social sciences, economy and society, health sciences ,  arts and humanities , design and culture, memory and heritage, education and pedagogical practices, climate change  and  the  construction of peace. Suggested inventory of resources, include the establishment of databases from GIS and big data sources, but also using open science and citizen approaches to bring in local and indigenous knowledge that escapes big data system. And the expedition would be resolutely in a network approach between organisations and groups with a variety of groundings and contexts in the local society. Ambitious perhaps, but no more so than the expeditions of the 18th and 19th centuries. And who knows perhaps contribute to the new movements of cultural independence to overcome the dangers of the networked big data global economy.

As a post-script I can’t help but mention that recently Scot Gresham Lancaster in our ArtSciLab in Dallas has started working on a communication system between forests on different continents; the project is an art project. The communication would draw on recent discoveries on the mycelial networks that link the root systems of trees; it has been discovered for instance that several percent of the carbon content of a given tree has actually been drawn from other trees vial the mycelial networks. So maybe what the tree of knowledge needs is a good dose of fungal networking ! Lets spread mushrooms in our universities.