Restoring the continuum

By piero scaruffi

(Prepared for the 2008 editorial of LEONARDO ISAST)

We live in the age of specialization. If you are an artist, you are not supposed to be a scientist. If you are a physicist, you are not supposed to be a chemist or a biologist. If you are a theoretical physicist, you are not supposed to be a geophysicist. If you are a musician, you are not supposed to be a painter. And so forth. There is virtually no limit to the degree of specialization that society forces on its members in our age. As a child, they ask you "what would you like to be when you grow up" and you are supposed to answer with just one word. If you try to be more than one specialist at a time, it is likely that you will be penalized by the members of both disciplines for not "truly" being a specialist in either one. The reason why we built such a society of specialists is very simple: it works. By partitioning human knowledge, we have created a very efficient way to apply and continuously increase human knowledge. The gap between art and science, and the gaps between all artistic and scientific disciplines, kept widening for the simple reason that the discrete space of specialized disciplines was more manageable than the old continuum of total knowledge. This strategy yielded the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the electrical revolution all the way to today's digital revolution, one after the other within a relatively short period of time (not even four centuries).

The separation of art and science is the very enabler of this society. Art is the recreation of the world in human image. Each mind does it differently because each mind is different. Needless to say, the existence of millions of different views of the world would make life very difficult. So society has actually evolved away from the arts and towards a uniform view of the world. Children have a very hard time abandoning their egocentric view of the world. Society forces them, and keeps forcing daily every adult, to accept a universal view of the world that we can share and use. No wonder that we have separated the arts from the sciences: the arts are an obstacle to that process of coexistence. Art is the process of creating a very personal view of the world. Science is the process of creating a very impersonal view of the world. The latter has helped us create more and more complex forms of society. The price we had to pay was to marginalize and imprison the arts.

Why do humans engage in artistic activities in the first place? If ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, then children hold the answer. Children play. Most adults stop playinging because they are hired to perform one of those specialized jobs. Art might be a way to keep playing as an adult. Children are genetically programmed to play, and play might be a way to learn the environment and to be creative about it. Humans may just be genetically programmed to be creative, i.e. to be artists. Art might just be a way to map the environment in a creative way. being creative about interacting with the environment yields several evolutionary advantages: 1. you learn more about the environment, 2. you simulate a variety of strategies, 3. you are better prepared to cope with frequently changing conditions. Mapping the territory is a precondition for surviving its challenges, but it wouldn't be enough to yield solutions to unpredictable problems. To deal with the unpredictable, we need more than just a map. over the centuries this continuous training in creativity has led to the creation of entire civilizations (science, technology, engineering). And to the history of art.

Specialization worked. But it had a cost. The separation of art and technology/engineering/science has alienated humans from their own creations, has created a sort of inferiority complex. It was not obvious to the Sumerians that the ziggurat was only art, or to the Egyptians that the pyramid was only art, or to the Romans that the equestrian statue was only art. These artifacts had, first and foremost, a practical purpose. Given that purpose, a technique was employed to achieve it as best as possible. It was tacitly assumed that these human artifacts were "superior" to Nature. The societies that built them were proud, not ashamed, of them. Today we live instead in an age of "environmental fundamentalism". The tacit assumption is exactly the opposite: that any alteration of Nature is a sin. We implicitly assume that humans cannot improve over Nature. This idea would have been considered ridiculous in ancient times, when human alterations of Nature were almost always considered as positive improvements to the landscape. Even the staunchest environmentalists would probably refrain from destroying the pyramids of Egypt or the ziggurats of Iraq or the Acropolis of Athens to restore the stones to the mountains where they were taken, and would probably refrain from demolishing Michelangelo's statues to return the marble to Carrara's mountain. However, in the 21st century we assume that Nature is the supreme artist, and humans should not alter whatever Nature has produced. If Michelangelo and Leonardo were reborn today and submitted a plan to build a fantastic freeway through a national park, they would be derided and fired. This was clearly not the case centuries ago, when great minds were asked specifically to alter the environment. Rich people routinely paid to have the natural landscape of their estate turned into artificial gardens. What has changed is the view that human work is beautiful. And this is the direct consequence of having decoupled art and science. The 21st century does not perceive a product of science/technology/engineering as beautiful. It perceives it as a threat to (natural) beauty.

Therefore, an organization of knowledge that was born out of pragmatism has had a profound impact on our view of the world and of our role in that world.

It gets worse. As society continues to spin its endless loop of specializations, the role of an individual, no matter how brilliant, is to refine pre-existing models. Society is growing generations of robots who are getting better and better at fulfilling the short-term needs of the society, but absolutely incapable of imagining a different kind of society.

The history of civilization is the history of both 1. paradigm shifts and 2. stepwise refinements of the dominant paradigm. However, today's society of specialists is not growing generations capable of paradigm shifts, albeit only of gradual refinement. What is missing is the creativity that humans are genetically programmed to cultivate and apply; the creativity that has been segregated when we decoupled science and art.

Major scientific revolutions have usually coincided with major artistic periods. Today science is mostly evolution, not revolution, perhaps because it has been decoupled from the arts.

In recent decades a new factor has dramatically altered the landscape. The digital age is providing us with an opportunity to tear down the walls of specialization and rebuild the old continuum of knowledge. The world-wide web, digital media and communication have enabled an unprecedented degree of exchange, interaction, integration, convergence and blending. After so many centuries of specialized progress, we are finally able again to see the continuum and not just the discrete space.

We live in an age of opportunity. On one hand we need a shot of creativity into the sciences to trigger new paradigm shifts. On the other hand the digital convergence is enabling precisely that osmosis of creativity by recreating the continuum from any discipline to any discipline.

The new continuum, though, bears little resemblance to the old one, in that its context is a knowledge-intensive society that is the exact opposite of the knowledge-deprived society of the ancient continuum. The "Leonardos" of the post-digital age will be significantly different from the Leonardos of the Rinascimento. The effects of this new continuum on the human mind are unimaginable because they are unprecedented.

And, yet, fostering this transformation requires a fundamental change in the structure of society, which is unlikely to come from the very Western society that invented (and prospered thanks to) the society of specializations. The societies of the developing world, that are not burdened with the bureaucracy, stereotypes, habits and prejudices that permeate the Western mind, may have a chance to be first at laying the foundations for a wide-spread integration of the arts and the sciences. Restoring the continuum is easier in the places where it was never parceled away.

The West thinks in terms of "career paths" (whether in the industry or the academia). In the digital age some career paths are emerging that blend art and science (for example, in the graphic-design industry) and may eventually create the need for interdisciplinary "polytechnics" that teach both art and science. However, the problem is not only that the Academia has no motivation to encourage such interdisciplinary programs: it also discourages them tout court. Very few Departments of Physics, for example, would hire an artist. There is literally no motivation to try that avenue (as opposed to study climate change, for which there are abundant funds and plenty of media attention). The risk is that, barring the equivalent of an Apollo program for the restructuring of academic curricula, the West may be too complacent to seize the opportunity to restore the continuum.

As far as developing countries go, they should realize that they can overtake the West only if they manage to introduce a paradigm shift, not if they content themselves with replicating the Western model. And a paradigm shift requires precisely the kind of imagination and creativity that is penalized by the Western society of specialization. That paradigm shift requires a hyper-interdisciplinary approach. After all, the paradigm shift that turned Europe from a continent of plagues, starvation and endemic warfare into the rulers of the world was born precisely during the Rinascimento, the quintessential interdisciplinary era.

Leonardo's mission in the 21st century should be to work with both worlds. On one hand Leonardo can create the awareness in the developed world that we have a golden opportunity to restore the continuum. On the other hand Leonardo should help the developing world set up the infrastructure for the hyper-interdisciplinary polytechnic of the future.