Science, art, and tools

By | June 3, 2015

Back in the late 1970s, I joined the National Science Foundation as part of a group looking at the implications of technological innovation. The personal computer was just beginning to be deployed, and I was extremely enthusiastic about its potential for creative change. This failed to resonate with the old-line mechanical engineers who were in charge of our division; to them, it wasn’t technology unless it somehow dripped oil on the floor. They reminded me that the Foundation was all about “science”; my ideas about how computing might change organizations sounded to them a lot more like artistic visions.

Since I had never received a grade higher than a B in any art class I’d ever taken, I’d never thought of myself as an artist; I was just a technologist – a tool freak. I fell deeply in love with tools at an early age, and continue to be hopelessly infatuated. Like any true romantic, I have a fundamental delusion that somewhere, somehow, there are tools out there that will solve all my problems. Despite having been jilted by tools almost as often as I’ve fallen in love, I continue to believe that my heart’s desire is still out there. (Eventually I’ll find the perfect organizer that will manage my life flawlessly.) So it was perfectly natural for me to make technology – the study of tools – my academic specialty. I built a nice theoretical model about the interactions of tools and uses in organizations, and how they shaped the process of implementation. Wasn’t I just being scientific in my approach? After all, I’d written reputable professional journal articles about all this.

There are thousands and thousands of pages written about the nature of art and science and the differences between them. Most human activity can be described as one of the other, or some combination. Both seem to be distinctively human activities; there aren’t many apparent analogs elsewhere in the animal realm. But what really are they, and is the distinction important?
I think there is a meaningful difference, although it applies to specific activities more than to general practices. We learn how to do distinctively human things in two different ways. Some things we can be taught how to do by others; some things we have to learn by ourselves, largely by doing. Approximately, the things that people can teach us how to do are “science”; the things we have to learn alone are “art”. It’s always tricky to offer specific examples, but let me suggest “bookkeeping” on the science end and “poetry” on the art end. There are some basic tools and methods necessary to keep books effectively, but once you learn them the application ought to be fairly consistent (creative accounting is frowned upon). On the other hand, the technology of poetry is little more than knowing how to put words to paper or a screen; the entire substance of poetry lies in the peculiarities introduced by each individual poet.

Almost every activity involves elements of both science and art. Consider something like playing a guitar. You can take lessons in how to hold the thing, how to finger the struts to produce particular cords, strum the strings, and the general all the mechanics of using the instrument. On the other hand, learning how to play well is mostly a matter of practice and sensitivity to the music – things you pretty much have to figure out by yourself. So guitar playing is a combination of the two approaches, although more heavily weighted toward the art end. Most things tend to cluster toward one direction or the other.

Tools and technologies (systematic combinations of tools) assist almost every human activity. They primarily assist the more scientific activities, where procedures are predictable and results are replicable, but they are also essential to much practice of art. A guitar is simply a tool for making music. As we noted, we learn to use it through a combination of scientific and artistic methods. Almost any tool can be employed in a more scientific or a more artistic manner. A #2 pencil is about as simple a tool as we have; it can be used for the simplest of computations, or in the hands of a master like MC Escher, it can produce fabulously complicated designs of the highest artistic quality. A hammer seems pretty utilitarian, but as anyone who has ever smashed a thumb while attempting to pound a nail understands, wielding it properly is an art form.

To me, the most interesting tools are those that facilitate art at the highest levels without impeding the exercise with an excess of science. Science has a tendency to push at art, to try to regularize and structure the things that we normally think of as artistic. Sometimes it works; the chess-playing program Deep Blue can perform chess at the highest artistic levels. On the other hand, paint-by-numbers seldom achieves even the quality level of the rawest weekend water-colorist. Lots of activities remain largely the prerogative of human art.

“Scientism” – the push to create ever-more-competent art-generating tools – has its dangers. When the chess app on your iPhone is so good that it beats you every time, your incentive to actually learn to play chess is significantly reduced. Computer-produced ad copy is good enough that large quantities of former copywriters are now facing unemployment. All around us, we see activities that we formerly thought required actual humans increasingly taken over by the semi-smart and semi-smarter machines. We won’t have to achieve strong AI for a large portion of humanity to find itself technologically obsolete.

Eventually, science and art converge on practice. Daily life is a constant tug between the two – between prescription and inspiration. The best science supports art; the best art does not obstruct science. And the best management combines elements of both seamlessly. Scientific management was a dead-end; but management as an art form is both unpredictable and dangerous. Let’s think about how best to facilitate a dialectic between them, as the world becomes less predictable, faster, and increasingly frustrating.