What Is New Under the Sun: Oral Futures to the Rescue of all those who worry.



Pier Luigi Capucci is publishing the papers from the fantastic Leonardo 50th birthday party   and the art*science 2017 – The New and History conference in
Bologna (Italy), July 3-5 2017 (  http://malina.diatrope.com/2017/05/14/artscience-leonardo-50th-birthday-party-in-bologna-italy-july-3-5/   )

Here is a final draft of my paper for comment criticisms and suggestions. As part of this, he asked us to identify 5 things we worry about 

Thank you again Pier Luigi !

Roger Malina

What Is New Under the Sun: Oral Futures to the Rescue of all those who worry.

The fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the Leonardo Journal presents a good opportunity to look back and look forward. I recently worked on a project with our Physics Department at the University of Texas at Dallas where we recorded “oral futures”;  physicists discussed results they would be publishing 50 years from now. It would be fascinating to have access to the oral futures of the founders of Leonardo Journal, speculating on the state of the arts and society today.

A contemporary dichotomy in western, and other, academic and industry circles is articulated between science-engineering and art-humanities. At the time of the founding of Leonardo, this was very much within the framing provided by C.P.Snow’s articulation of the ‘two cultures’ problem.The problem persists today, although I argue that the two cultures framing is a false dichotomy. This dichotomy can take different forms; for example, hard and soft, quantitative and qualitative, logical and creative, objective and subjective, and so on. Many of these are false, or oversimplifying, dichotomies or reductionist thinking that have lessened our human ability to solve complex problems. These dichotomies are not new. As pointed out by Joe Davis (Leonardo Journal, 2018 in press), the roman polymath Marcus Vitruvius Pollio advocated many of the holistic approaches being debated today. In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun !

I was asked  at the Leonardo 50th Birthday party in Bologna, organised by Pier Luigi Capucci,  for  topics that maybe I’m worrying about. One  of the things that upset me is:  I’m an astronomer and in the last 10-15 years we discovered that most of the universe is made of dark matter and doesn’t emit light. And so astronomer are the wrong kind of intelligent beings to understand the universe, we have the wrong senses and this implicit bias led us to a totally wrong concept of what the universe consisted of. If we were designing an intelligent being that is able to understand the universe, the last thing we would do is design a human being. The same goes for universities as I argue next.

And so I make an analogy between that and what Poe Johnson and I called “dark culture’ ; you have these systems to tell us what’s going on but almost all the interesting stuff is dark and doesn’t  reach universities. Popular culture is full of innovation today, but all our institutions are designed to see things that are very visible today using the kinds of tools that academics develop. Leonardo Journal is an example of a biased telescope that focuses mostly on the work done in universities.  I think there’s a deep similar problem now in the dark culture as there is in astronomy.  Certainly at the time of the founding of Leonardo Journal, that community of practice was ignored by institutions of culture and higher learning, but our culture today is heavily influenced by the work they did. Leonardo Journal has published over 10,000 new emerging Leonardos. Universities 50 years later are only just beginning to wake up.


I think we are going through another deep transition at the moment, where the amount of sensory input we get through instruments is now exceeding that that we get through our senses, and I think this is a new situation. Stiegler likes to talk about that we still tend to think of technology as tools or extensions of ourselves, but instead he says we need to think about these new technologies as organs, that actually symbiotic with our own development and not extensions of human faculties and many of these tools now have senses that we don’t have.  We now talk of the ‘data body’ which contains all the data that we can now collect using medical instruments. This data reveals phenomena inside our body that we have no sensory access to. Fifty years from now how will we live with both knowledge of our physical bodies and the world accessible through our senses, and to our data bodies that know things our physical bodies dont. I think that this data culture and the dark culture are two things group maybe interlinked but for me make me worry that we dont have adequate oral futures discussions among us. Our podcast platform Creative Disturbance is one place where we hope to promote oral futures.


I have other worry  topics. One is transdisciplinary collaboration. All our institutions are set up to identify individuals and reward individuals. But all the complex problems we are working on now require groups of people to work together. We still give Ph.D.s to individuals not to teams, the Nobel Prize is awarded to very few individuals, not to teams, and so how we change all our methodologies of how we train people, reward people to go from the individual genius, which is our model with Leonardo da Vinci, to how a team of people can display genius. And I thing that’s a tough problem given the complexity of the problems that we are trying to solve. Alex Topete in our lab is working on developing apprenticeship training for transdisciplinary collaboration, but how do you do this in a natural ways to train teams not individuals ? How can universities award PhDs to groups that demonstrated innovation and excellence in transdisciplinary research ?

Another one is which is maybe it’s kind of obvious, but I think we haven’t thought about it enough is in our societies, and certainly in Europe and America, life expectancy has increased.  I now have many colleagues who are 80 and they’re still in full professional activity but our universities want to have nothing to do with them. They close their email accounts, get them out of the office and so one of the world’s growing resort resources is retired professionals, as David Peat has argued. In France I was made to retire when I was 65, well maybe I still have another career ahead of me, and our societies are not all organized to take this into account. They are organized around middle age people and  cultural; processes.  So I think there is an interesting problem of how we change our social structures to make sure that we have intergenerational communication, creativity, innovation  and discussion going on. This is a point that Leonardo board member Nina Czegledy has championed through the Leonardo 50th birthday parties. Again universities are not ideal places to do this as they are designed around age cohorts- 80 year old geniuses rarely get to meet 18 year old emerging leonardos there !

The final thing, and many people have written about this, is it is clear that there are a number of things that are going on at the moment in the world, which are happening quicker than one generation. In the past when the climate changed- people moved, and the climate did not often change in a hundreds years, it happened over a longer period, and so people migrated to another place. Now on our planet, we have migrated everywhere we can migrate, so there’s nowhere else to migrate to, except outer space and I don’t think that’s a useful solution in the current situation. So these changes that are happening within a generation or two generations, and so we need to actually redesign our culture. Anne Balsamo has written extensively about this. A situation that no human culture has ever been before , except when a meteor  wiped out 90% of the life forms, and then no one redesigned the species and their social structures. Most changes on this planet have been on time scales that are longer than one generation or two generations. Climate change presents an opportunity to actively redesign our culture using design methodologies.


And so as we try and develop oral futures for Leonardo, my five topics are: intergenerational communication; redesigning culture; dark culture and data culture; and the favoring emergence  of transdisciplinary Leonardo teams not individual geniuses.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Inteligência artificial, (cons)ciência e poesia | TransObjetO