"Art is Useless" (But Not Worthless)

Art is useless, but not worthless.

This edited version of an earlier post includes the full video of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's 2013 eye-opening IdeaFestival presentation. Watch for more full videos to be posted soon!

What is it about the sheer variety of ways I can now communicate that feels so impoverishing?

Having just mounted a powerful and eloquent defense of his very public work because it offers meaning rather than information, beginning at the 52:00 mark in the video here a mildly agitated Lozano-Hemmer leans into the thought once again during a question and answer session, pressing the case that his interactive works were shared experiences, not a way of saying any one thing.

Art has nothing to do with communication.... Communication is about the efficient transmission of information from one side to the other.... Art is not about that efficiency. It's not about that optimization. Art is much more about communion, about his moment of sharing.... It cannot be quantified. The telecom cannot charge us for this moment of complicity.

Beginning with an observation first made by Oscar Wilde, Lozano-Hemmer goes on to say that

Art is useless, but it's not worthless. [The artist] is actually here to slow down communication, to do interceptions....

And, finally, referring dryly to the work of artists:

If the [artist] wanted to communicate, he or she would write more clearly.

That vexation leapt to mind when I read The Attention Economy by Tom Chatfield. Like Lozano-Hemmer, I think Chatfield might ask that those who measure, map, sell or otherwise insist on surrender when it comes to our online relationships think about a set of shared experiences rather than communication. Because right now the exchange is woefully one-sided. Chatfield:

Attention... ‘comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera. An army sergeant ordering troops doesn’t want the kind of attention Madonna seeks. And neither desires the sort I do as I write this.’

However, when it comes to automated systems for garnering attention, there’s more at play than one person listening to another; and the processes of measurement and persuasion have some uncannily totalising tendencies. As far as getting the world to pay attention to me online, either I play by the rules of the system — likes, links, comments, clicks, shares, retweets — or I become ineligible for any of its glittering prizes. As the American writer and software engineer David Auerbach put it in n+1 magazine, in a piece pointedly titled ‘The Stupidity of Computers’ (2012), what is on screen demands nothing so much as my complicity in its assumptions:

Because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can ‘understand’. Their dumbness will become ours.

....Where is the space, here, for the idea of attention as a mutual construction more akin to empathy than budgetary expenditure — or for those unregistered moments in which we attend to ourselves, to the space around us, or to nothing at all?

Chatfield's defense of "attention" in distinctly human terms was so refreshing, and I marveled, having heard Lozano-Hemmer, at how poor we still are at understanding the emotional content, much less the emotional potential, of what it means to be with each other. The pity we seem so willing to attend to our stupid machines, unable as they are to tolerate our silence.

Stay curious.


IdeaFestival Stories: Anne Shadle Got Rid of Cable

While it's true that the IdeaFestival is a place where one can enjoy hearing from many of the brightest people on the planet, it succeeds because it has inspired regular festival goers like the Founder and Executive Director of The Kentucky Children's Health and Fitness Fund, Jan Winter, to make a difference, to do something different with their time and talents.

The unlikely conversations over coffee, the expanded sense of possibility and the accessibility of the many remarkable speakers who appear year after year set the festival apart. Transylvania University faculty members Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova illustrated the power of conversation recently when they shared their story about Discarded, a very personal and interactive art project featuring an abandoned couch that played host to several memorable talks last September.

Yesterday, the festival spoke briefly with Mayan Cafe general manager Anne Shadle, who describes how she was inspired to get rid of cable, two of her favorite speakers, Richard Kogan and Oliver Burkeman, and how the festival has changed her. Thanks for your time, Anne!

Why not make plans now to attend the next IdeaFestival Sept. 30 - Oct 3, 2014? I hope to see you there.

Stay curious.


You Promised Me Mars and All I Got Was Facebook, cont.

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. - Arthur C. Clarke

Note: Here is the original IF blog post, inspired by an MIT Technology Review cover.

Late last night around 10:30p I broke a rule that I usually manage to keep, and looked at my Twitter timeline.

I saw a tweet from someone I don't follow brought to my attention by someone I do follow, Hugh MacLeod @gapingvoid. Hugh pointed out that Facebook had just bought WhatsApp for $16 billion, and helpfully included a prior tweet, which noted that the purchase was the rough equivalent of NASA's entire annual budget. In the moment, I typed "words fail" and passed along the message.

Despite my reservations about the value placed on this particular acquisition, in one important sense Facebook's buy is a story about innovation, and one you probably won't read elsewhere if you follow social media. Let me explain.

Committed to the project of going to the moon and fresh from a colossal stimulus program called World War Two, the country marshaled its considerable engineering and scientific know how to meet the challenge of safely sending humans to the moon. One of the problems that had to be conquered was steerage. Lunar landing and Earth re-entry were frankly dangerous since human manipulation, alone, of any control system designed to accomplish those tasks posed substantial crew dangers.

Fortune, however, favors the experimenters. A working prototype of the integrated circuit had been developed in the prior decade, though as a technology it languished without any real application. NASA and its subcontractors nonetheless took an interest in it because punch cards and vacuum tubes just wouldn't do. Developers explored ideas like fault tolerance in silicon and code. Together, those efforts would result in the Apollo Guidance Computer, an example of embedded computing and the first machine to fully realize the latent possibility of the integrated circuit. It made real time, computer-aided guidance and control possible while lowering the considerable human risks associated with lunar landing and Earth re-entry. 

The connection to Facebook is simple. From phones to microwave ovens to gaming consoles, today's conveniences simply would not be possible without the integrated circuit and embedded computing.

If you watch the wonderful video posted here, you'll notice Armstrong and Aldrin call out "1201" alarms, which was the AGC complaining of overload. Thankfully, the software had been engineered with priority scheduling, which allowed the computer to continue to help its human occupants attend to the task at hand.

Stay curious.


Moonscape (Apollo 11) 2/13 - Contact Light from Paolo Attivissimo on Vimeo.

How to Kill a Business with Great Numbers

There’s never been a new idea proven without first trying it.

Buried midway through an article on the creative process at FastCo Create, "Innovation - You’re Doing It Wrong: How To Put Intuition And Ideas Before Tests And Analyses," you'll find the following passage on the role of intuition in a game where one of two decks of cards is stacked against participants who must decide which deck will be more rewarding. What happens next is an important comment on the nature of creativity.

Subjects were asked to report when they could explain why they favored one deck over another. It required about 50 cards before a participant began to change their behavior and favor a certain deck, and about 80 cards before they became aware of why they did it. Rationality is a relatively slow process. But in addition to asking them to explain their decisions, they also measured their emotional responses by gauging how the electrical properties of skin responded to anxiety and stress.

The experimenters found that the body got 'nervous' after drawing only about 10 cards from the losing decks. Even though the subjects were not consciously aware, their bodies developed an accurate sense of fear and anxiety in response to a bad deck well in advance of the rational mind. The subjects' feelings were faster and more accurate, having figured it out way before the conscious mind was tipped off....

This [Iowa Gambling Task] is a challenge and metaphor to improve innovation. We can’t prove the profitability of an intuition or idea because it’s simply not open to conscious explanation. And if we wait for rational proof, we won’t get there in time or at all.

"Metrics and measurements" track results. But as a method for greenlighting new projects numbers alone are woefully ineffective, because, as author and branding consultant Douglas Van Praet points out, in the case of consumer products organizations are striving to formalize a buying process that begins with intuition and can't be predicted. Our bodies know what our minds can't fully grasp. The best that measurement can do is to crown a success. As a marketing exercise Van Praet calls the process "test and kill".

The article is a frank acknowledgement of what many from artists to behavior economists to the clergy already know about decision making. The reasoning process doesn't generate feelings because we have beliefs. Reason generates belief because we have feelings. When it comes to truly innovative outcomes, the best metric is very often a better question.

Stay curious.


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by rwkvisual

Lance Hosey - We Only Conserve What We Love

In the end, we conserve only what we love - Poet Baba Dioum, quoted by Lance Hosey

"Environmental design" is redundant because all design takes place in an environment - Lance Hosey

Design must be both beautiful and sustainable, according to architect Lance Hosey, "but we need to stop thinking of those terms as somehow separate." Fractal geometry, he points out, is one area where beauty and sustainable forms combine to provide a tangible human benefit.

Referred to as "the fingerprints of nature," fractal geometry can be found in forms as diverse as river deltas and human vasculature, and are useful because they "facilitate the flow of energy and matter." I also loved Hosey's idea that our intuitive response to these forms is unforced because our genetic material retains a memory of them as beneficial as well as beautiful.

To watch all IdeaFestival videos subscribed to our YouTube channel, IFTV. And be sure to follow us on Twitter or subscribe to the blog's RSS feed for early news on IdeaFestival 2014 speakers, such as author and science journalist Lee Billings, who will talk to festival audiences about the multitudes of other worlds now being discovered around modest yellow stars like the one we know so well.

Stay curious.


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