Abstraction and Standardization

What is the future of art? What media will it use? Computers, obviously. Information technology is very good at imitating old media: drawing programs, music programs, word processors designed for playwrights or authors. But none of these tap into the intrinsic strengths of the computer, able to do something no other medium can: simulate. Bret Victor, the man so demanding of user interfaces he left Apple, is dissatisfied with the tools available to artists that allow them to simulate. So he made his own, and gave a one-hour talk on it.

Those interested should definitely take the time to watch it, but to summarize, he demonstrates the power of simulation in creating art that is part animation and part performance, with the human and computer reacting to one another. He then lifts the curtain and show us the tools he used to simulate the characters in the scene, and it’s not code. Instead, it’s a drawing program, with lines and shapes, that he uses to define behavior. Code, he points out, is based on algebra, but his system is based on geometry. Finally, he concludes with a short performance that he built with these tools. Higher is the story of earth, from the stars to cells to civilization to space travel back to the stars.

What blew my mind about Higher is that a few years ago, I had independently created a short film on exactly that topic, with exactly the same background music (Kyle Gabler’s Best Of Times from World of Goo). Victor’s piece was far more polished, but we had both been inspired by the same music to express the same idea, the journey of life to the stars. Remember when I complained about not finding people who shared my narrative? So this is what that feels like.

What drove Victor to create his tools was the belief that art is an attempt to communicate that which cannot be put into words. By binding simulation to lingual code, we make it inaccessible and unsuitable for art and artists. Direct manipulation of the art, which is how art has been created going back to cave paintings, allows the artist to interact with and lend emotion to the art in ways not possible through code’s layer of indirection, of abstraction.

The reason artists’ needs have been neglected by developers is that, for the rest of the world, code works just fine. As I’ve previously blogged, language is one of humankind’s most powerful inventions. The direct manipulation that is liberating to the artist is confining to the engineer. Language is how we manage many layers of abstraction at once; without it we are reduced to pointing and grunting. It’s harder to communicate with a computer in code than a well-designed direct manipulation interface, but code is more powerful. In the sciences, a good result is consistent with what is already known; in art, a good piece is unexpected and shakes our established worldview. More fundamentally, the sciences observe and record some objective outside truth; art looks inward to offer one of many interpretations of the subjective human experience.

This tension that we see between science and art also shows up in schools. In a recent TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson extols diversity as a fundamental human trait, which schools attempt to erase and replace with standardization. We agree that standardization has its place, but I personally think he downplays its importance. Standardization is writing, is language; those things can’t happen without common ways of thinking. At first, children need to explore concepts and use their own terms, without a top-down lesson plan imposed by school administrators. Nevertheless, the capstone is always learning what the rest of the world calls it. That isn’t smashing creativity, but rather empowering the child to learn more about the topic from others and from reference sources. It’s creating a minimum level of knowledge common every adult member of society, which is assumed by all media. Being able to communicate  facts with others isn’t just the result of education, it’s what makes education possible in the first place. With language, groups of people can unambiguously refer to things not present, a shared imagination. Verbalization is a form of abstraction.

Let’s get back to the role of diversity in school. Students should be able to explore what interests them, but the converse is not true: some topics must be taught to everyone, even if some people do not find them interesting. This is especially true before high school. I know you’re not passionate about fractions, Little Johnny, but you need to learn them. Society expects everyone to have a minimum level of competence in every subject. Additionally, passion for a field isn’t always “love at first sight”. The future mathematician isn’t always the first in the class to get basic arithmetic.

Although the curriculum needs to be largely standardized, the pedagogy does not. The neglect of diversity in schools is most heavily felt not in what kids are or are not learning, but how they are learning it. The inflexibility imposed on lesson plans is degrading to teachers and failing our kids. Teachers should be trusted to adapt lessons to their class, and empowered with testing results they find useful, early enough to use it. Standardized testing as it exists today does not fit the bill. Every student needs to achieve the same core competencies, but the paths to doing so will be as diverse as the children themselves. A broad exposure to both methods and topics promotes the development not just of knowledge, but of personality and identity. The reason to have art in school isn’t to improve test scores but because it’s part of being human.

To be more precise, we should distinguish between “the arts” and “art”. The arts are how to create with the media classically used for art: paint, music, poetry, drama, dance, and so on. Like any other discipline, the arts require a standardized language to record and transfer this knowledge. Sometimes it’s plain English, sometimes it’s jargon, sometimes it’s symbols, but it’s still an agreed-upon abstraction. Diversity of ideas expressed in the language is inventive and healthy; diversity of the language itself is nonstandard and chaotic. With this in mind, the arts take their place at one end of a spectrum of knowledge: mathematics, natural science, social science, and history. And the arts.

But art is something entirely different. It is the personal and emotional perception of an experience that communicates without words. Art is direct and concrete; it is subjective and sublime. Much of the arts attempt to create art. Victor’s tools advance the arts; what he creates with them is art.

It’s a defensible position to say that art, because it does not rely on language as all the other fields of knowledge do, is not knowledge at all. But I’ll indulge Victor and say that not all knowledge can be verbalized. That doesn’t mean that art is beyond classification; Victor and I saw the same artistic ideas in the same piece of lyricless music. Conversely, just because something is written down doesn’t mean it’s standardized or useful knowledge. Recently, the mathematics community has been bewildered by an inscrutable set of papers which claim to prove a fundamental piece of number theory. No one can decipher them to tell if the proof is valid, and their author has not been forthcoming with an oral explanation. So in extreme cases, the analogy between language and standardization breaks down. The wordless expression is more coherent than words.

For all the knowledge that abstract language has brought us, ineffable art remains part of the human experience. It is important for our children to learn about art to become mature and thoughtful adults. It is equally important for us to provide tools that support the nonverbal side of thought, to engage the visual and auditory parts of our brains in ways words never can. These are the same failure: the refuge in abstraction, the desire to have everything neat and orderly and predictable. Art exists to explore ambiguity and paradox; it does not demand simple answers but asks complex questions.

A lot of futurists imagine a time when technology makes everything easy. There is a faith in technological convergence, where everything speaks the same language and interacts intelligently and flawlessly. But historically we see technologies become incompatible. If there’s an open standard underneath, such as email, you still get dozens of providers and clients; and if there’s not, you get the walled gardens of social media, loosely tied together by third-party “integration”. What’s important to realize is that the path of technology is not fixed. Our gadgets don’t have to make us more productive and connected; they can make us more artistic and provide privacy, if we design them so. We should stop aspiring to a monoculture of technology because, not only will it not happen for technical and economic reasons, it shouldn’t happen. Standardized technology leads to standardized thinking, especially when coupled with standardized social institutions. Creativity is  not only what drives technology further, but art and humanity as well.


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