TITLE: A Scientist Dressed in Artist's Clothing? AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 20, 2004 2:04 PM DESC: on scientists adopting the techniques of artists ----- BODY: Over the last couple of months, I've been following the discussion on the Extravagaria wiki. Extravagaria is a workshop organized by Richard Gabriel and Janet Holmes at OOPSLA 2004. It aims to explore how software people can use techniques of the arts "to explore research questions and explain results". I am a "Suzuki dad" to my daughter as she learns to play the piano. For the last few weeks, I've been picking up "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" during her lesson and reading a section while she works with her teacher. Yesterday, something I read brought Extravagaria to mind. I was reading Chapter 25, in which Pirsig talks about the synthesis of classical and romantic thought. He argues that adding the romantic as a veneer over the classical almost always results in "stylish" but unsatisfying -- even ugly -- results, both the product itself and the experience of users and designers. Instead, the classical and romantic must be united at a more fundamental level, in his notion of Quality. Pirsig then says:
At present we're snowed under with an irrational expansion of blind data-gathering in the sciences because there's no rational format for any understanding of scientific creativity. At present we are also snowed under with lots of stylishness in the arts -- thin art -- because there's very little assimilation or extension into underlying form. We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly. The time for real reunification of art and technology is long overdue.
How much artistic knowledge do scientists require in order to avoid producing ghastly results? Can we just put a "stylish" veneer on our work, or must we study art -- do art -- so that the process is a part of us? I sometimes feel as though I am affecting an artistic stance when the substance of my work is little different. That isn't to say that I have not benefited from adopting practices from the arts. I learned a lot from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. Since reading it, I have always tried to write a little every day (code and text) as a way to keep my ideas, and my ability to write them down, flowing. One of the reasons that I started this blog was, in part, as an external encouragement to write something of value every day, and not just the surface of an interesting but inchoate thought. Gabriel has been something of an inspiration in this regard, with his "one poem a day" habit. I have also certainly benefited from learning to play the piano (well, beginning to learn) as an adult. The acts of learning an obviously artistic skill, talking about it with my teacher, and reading about it have all changed my brain in subtle but useful ways. The change affects how I teach computer science and how I read its literature; I suspect that it has begun to change how I do computer science, too. How easily can scientists adopt practices from the arts without 'grokking' them in the artistic sense? I suppose that this is one of the points of Extravagaria. If you are interested in this topic, be sure to check out the Extravagaria wiki. -----