The Straight Line and the Labyrinth

7.2 / Art, Science, and Wonder

The Straight Line and the Labyrinth

By Piero Scaruffi October 29, 2015

“The worst labyrinth is not that intricate form that can entrap us forever but a single and precise straight line.” —Jorge Luis Borges

1. A Disclaimer in Lieu of an Introduction

I have been organizing multi-, inter-, and anti-disciplinary events since I was in high school. Since 1995, my incredibly chaotic (and intentionally colorful) website,, has covered all sorts of disciplines and reflects my multiple lives in multiple disciplines. Given my background, I am often invited to panels about the interaction and intersection of art, science, and technology. I have, however, come to realize that such discussions are often flawed from their inception and consequently lend themselves to all sorts of wrong generalizations. This flaw arises from a simple fact: we have a straightforward understanding of science—a scientific theory offers a mathematical model that can be used both to predict the future and to disprove the theory itself—whereas we have a less certain understanding of art. In the old days in Italy, the Roman Catholic Church decided what was art; then the aristocratic patrons did. Today a realistic definition of art is, probably, what gets accepted in museums, exhibited in galleries, reviewed by critics, and purchased by collectors. In other words, it could literally be anything. If an influential critic decides that my hiking boots are an artwork, they can be displayed in an art gallery and purchased by an art collector. All the discussions about art and science rely on a relatively clear, fixed definition of science and on an extremely vague, historically shifting, and inherently subjective definition of art.

My provocative definition is very simple (alas, I was trained as a mathematician): art is largely defined by its uselessness. The more useful for practical purposes something is, the less likely that I recognize it as art. If it is very useful, it is not art. If it is totally useless, then it is certainly art (insert smiley face here!). Artists who try to explain to me why their art is useful to society are shooting themselves in the foot

2. Why the Art-Science-Technology Interaction Matters: An Ode to Interdisciplinary Minds

Whether in art, technology, or science, creativity does not happen in a vacuum. These disciplines coexist, influence, and interact with each other, whether or not they want or know it. Silicon Valley, for example, did not happen in a vacuum: it happened within the intense cultural ecosystem of the Bay Area. Other regions of the world (notably the East Coast of the United States and Western Europe) had the brains, the money, the electronic corporations, the Nobel laureates, and the political power that the Bay Area lacked, but the Bay Area overtook those other regions and became the world’s epicenter of technological and scientific creativity. One cannot explain why it happened without studying its preexisting culture and society. In the 2012 book A History of Silicon Valley, Arun Rao and I did precisely that. The more we studied the society of the Bay Area, going back at least a century, the more we understood the origins of the casual office environment, the culture of failure, the startup ethos, the meritocratic system, the idealistic approach to technology, and so forth: all the aspects associated with Silicon Valley cannot easily be derived from the established social and work patterns of other regions but can naturally be explained from the lifestyle of the Bay Area. People living in the 1950s in New York or London did not know the Bay Area as a place for advanced technology; they knew it as a refuge for wildly unorthodox artists and writers. In the 1960s, people all over the world knew the Bay Area as the birthplace of the hippies, of the Black Panthers, and of the most unlikely artistic movements, not as the birthplace of the computer (that would be Iowa or Manchester, England) or of the transistor (that would be New Jersey).

Piero Scaruffi trying one of Robert Edgar's art installations at the first LAST festival, 2014.

In fact, virtually nothing has been invented in what the world now knows as Silicon Valley. The list of things not invented here includes: computer, transistor, integrated circuit, robots, artificial intelligence, programming languages, databases, videogames, the Internet, personal computers, World Wide Web, search engines, social media, smartphones, wearable computing, space exploration, electrical cars, driverless cars…in other words, just about everything that the world identifies with Silicon Valley. What Silicon Valley did was to hijack each of these inventions and turn them into something else according to an alternative philosophy of life that was unique to the Bay Area.

Think of the Unix operating system, an invention of one of the largest corporations in the world, AT&T Bell Laboratories, that UC Berkeley turned into the archetype of social media. Think of the Internet, an invention initially funded by the Department of Defense, that Silicon Valley turned into a hotbed of counterculture.

The alternative philosophy had been created by intellectuals who had little or nothing to do with technology and science and very often were even hostile to the rationality of technological progress and to the business world that exploited it.

3. A Historical Intermezzo: The Separation of Art and Science

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. Art loves diversity, variety, unorthodoxy: there are many truths in art. Science aims for one universal truth. Art renders the familiar unfamiliar. Science renders the unfamiliar familiar (or, at least, manageable).

While they seem to be polar opposites, the two disciplines complement each other in many ways. In fact, major scientific revolutions have usually coincided with major artistic booms, whether in Athens, Florence, Vienna, or the Bay Area.  The specific mechanisms by which creativity in the arts helped boost creativity in the sciences and vice versa is a long and convoluted story, one beyond the scope of this essay. Nonetheless, against all historical evidence, today the widespread perception is that art and science don’t need each other.

The origin of this misunderstanding may lie in the explosive success of science and technology in improving the material conditions of the human race. Scientific and technological progress in transportation, medicine, energy production, education, materials development, information, and so forth has on the whole allowed us to live longer and wealthier than ever in the two hundred thousand years of our human history. Since the industrial revolution, which actually began in the Middle Ages, that success has relied on increasing specialization and therefore rejected interdisciplinarity.

In fact, the separation of art and science was part of a broader trend away from unification. Not only did the disciplines of science and art progressively move apart but also subdisciplines within each moved apart from each other. Each scientific discipline—chemistry, physics, medicine, natural sciences—became increasingly specialized. Artists became painters or sculptors but were rarely both. A continuum of knowledge and of human practices was broken down into a set of discrete units, each neatly separated from its neighbors. This happened for a simple reason: it worked. Humans were able to build large-scale societies thanks to the partitioning of labor and of knowledge. As the body of knowledge grew, it became impractical to maintain in each practitioner the same continuum of knowledge. It was more feasible  to organize the increasing amount of knowledge if it was broken down into discrete units and handled by specialists. The gap between art and science, and the gaps between all artistic and scientific subdisciplines, kept increasing because having multiple, discrete spaces of specialized disciplines was more manageable than the old continuum of total knowledge.

This is not surprising. The specialization of labor is actually the foundation of life. At the very beginning of life, there exist multifunctional cells. These cells split into a mortal body and an immortal genetic material. The mortal body splits into organs and limbs. The need for societies arises from specialization: multifunctional beings don’t need to socialize whereas specialized beings need to live in societies in which other beings perform other functions so that the whole is fit to survive. The division of labor among specialized units had been important for survival and progress for millions of years before the city of Florence decided to separate the quarter of the goldsmiths from the quarter of textile manufacturers.

The crowd at the first LAST festival, Zero1 in San Jose, 2014.

Centuries after the beginning of the industrial revolution, we live in a society of hyperspecialists and, in particular, in a society in which science and art are kept neatly apart, obeying radically different rules. On the one hand, today’s scientist belongs to a bureaucracy, typically a university or a research institute, that rewards scientists the same way that a large corporation rewards its employees. Promotions are given by superiors and based on grants. To scientists, the only opinion that matters is the opinion of their peers. On the other hand, today’s artists are more like self-employed business people. They don’t have superiors, and their work needs to involve a heterogeneous audience that extends from the general public to the art critics. To artists, the opinion that doesn’t matter is the opinion of their peers.

Today, society prioritizes science and technology over art. To a large extent, science has tended to focus on the material improvement of life whereas art has tended to help the spiritual improvement of life. Today we live in a wildly more materialistic era than most people would like to admit: material benefits are better appreciated by a vastly larger population than spiritual benefits.

Alas, specialization ultimately means knowing more and more about less and less. The alarm was sounded already in the twentieth century, by such texts as Lucio Fontana’s “White Manifesto” (1946), C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” (1959), and W.T. Jones’s “The Sciences and the Humanities” (1965). The fragmentation of knowledge creates boundaries, turns the continuum of human knowledge into a set of discrete cells (or prisons, or traps). Everybody sees a tree now, but nobody can see the forest anymore.

4. A Manifesto: Restoring the Continuum

The digital revolution of the twenty-first century is providing the opportunity for an unprecedented degree of exchange, interaction, integration, convergence, and blending of disparate disciplines. We can see the continuum again. Artists can be made aware and increasingly empowered with technology and science in their work. Scientists and engineers can be made aware that there is more than just a new paper or a new product release that matters in life. The business world is becoming more aware that art trains people to be creative, that art can help usher in a paradigm shift. The evolution of society depends on all facets to evolve, not just one.

The global culture of the twenty-first century is expanding both horizontally, thanks to the emergence of new centers of innovation such as East Asia, and vertically, thanks to the emergence of new technologies. The tension between an increasingly multicultural world—that tends to fragment and polarize—versus the ubiquity of the digital—that tends to flatten and homogenize—shapes “the global contemporary” (from the title of a recent exhibition at the Center for Art and Media, or ZKM, in Karlsruhe, Germany). Fluid incoherence between antithetical poles drives a methodological and aesthetic revolution: local/global, micro/macro, analog/digital, real/virtual. An emerging form of culture enacts the dogmatic adoption of disruptive innovation and the total defamiliarization entailed by it. The ordinary is increasingly extraordinary, and seldom private, because the new ideologies of production and consumption entail the constant monitoring of private life while offering ever-newer forms of nonstop participation.

Thus the new continuum 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. Therein lies the challenge.

Some of us believe in democratizing the high culture that has been exclusive to the hyperspecialists. This high culture tends to be created by specialists for specialists. It spreads outside institutions via conferences or salons but rarely via public programs. Sometimes public programs democratize such culture by lowering the quality or complexity of the content, to appeal to the nonspecialist masses. The Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) series of lectures and presentations and the Life, Art, Science, and Technology (LAST) Festival have tried to democratize it without lowering the caliber of the content. We want to bring to the general public the kind of high-caliber programs that are usually reserved for the specialists. But the general public includes specialists: we want to bring to specialists of one discipline the kind of specialized knowledge that is usually reserved for specialists of a different discipline. We want to make accessible to everybody the kind of high-level knowledge that tends to be reserved for an elite group. We want to fill this gap, this missing link. Our democratizing process is not about lowering the standards of the scientific, technological, humanistic, and artistic programs that are offered by specialized institutions. On the contrary, we want to bring the highest possible standard of presentation to the general public; hence we created a program that drafts top scientists, inventors, scholars, and artists and events that are free and open to everybody.

LASER 2015: Josef Parvisi (Stanford neurosurgeon), Cathy Zoi (founding CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection established by former Vice President Al Gore and Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy in the Obama administration), Lucia Jacobs (UC Berkeley psychologist), Rachna Nivas (classical Indian dancer), and Chris Chafe (director of Stanford's center for computer music).

In a sense the Bay Area constitutes the ideal testbed. The Bay Area (“Silicon Valley” has become a reductive term) has become the world’s most powerful technological driver. It has grown so rapidly that it lacks the kind of cultural and social identity that other metropolitan centers naturally acquired over centuries. It makes sense to rediscover and celebrate the entire ecosystem that fueled the breathtaking transformation from eccentric province to epicenter of the future.

My personal experience is that it is precisely this ecosystem, made of unorthodox intellectuals, advanced scientific institutions, and a multitude of high-tech companies, that intrigues the rest of the world. Other regions have been the sites of the most valuable companies in the world (think of AT&T in New Jersey) or of the fastest growing industries (think of Detroit’s automobiles), but the Bay Area’s unique mixture is what inspires the rest of the world.

That said, many of us are frustrated that the Bay Area does not contribute more to the advancement of the arts. The reason goes beyond the process of gentrification, which San Francisco artists blame for destroying the city. On the one hand, the skyrocketing cost of living is certainly penalizing artists; on the other hand, the overwhelming amount of capital is directed toward technology and science. Unfortunately, nobody has been able to articulate in clear terms what the benefits would be for private and public capital to invest in the artistic community—the very community that shaped the unique mindset that fueled the technological boom that creates that capital. It is telling that, as I type this essay, the LAST Festival, founded in Silicon Valley, is getting more attention from Beijing than from Silicon Valley.

We, the advocates of art-and-science integration, share common beliefs in the drawbacks of separating art and science but tend to have different views on the benefits of such integration. My colleagues at major universities often speak about the benefits of one discipline for the other. My view is slightly different. What I would like to see arise from art-and-science collaborations is something that is neither art nor science, something completely new without yet a name.

More about the LASERs:

More about the LAST Festival:

LASER = Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (2008–present)

LAST = Life, Art, Science, and Technology Festival (2014–present)

SMMMASH = Stanford Multidisciplinary Multimedia Meeting of the Arts, Sciences and Humanities (2011–12)

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