Down at the Crossroads
Art for art’s sake is more than a slogan. It’s food for the soul
The pipe organ, that most majestic of musical instruments, has long been associated with church music, occupying pride of place in great houses of worship in Europe and America. But not every congregation has always welcomed these complicated mechanical music-makers into their naves and chancels. In fact, some church leaders through the centuries have condemned the pipe organ as“the Devil’s instrument.”
Actually the pipe organ predates the church, tracing its history all the way back to about 200 BC, when a Greek engineer named Ctesibius of Alexandria set about designing a machine that would allow a single musician to play a number of pan flutes simultaneously. (The pan flute got its name from the Greek god of nature and music, Pan, who was a rascal and a partier. In part, it was this association with pagan practices that led some in the church to decry the pipe organ as unfit for worship.)
Ctesibius did a lot of work with wind and water pressure; in fact, many credit him as the father of the science of pneumatics. His solution to the pipe organ problem came from a technologist’s – not an artist’s – point of view.Yet his contribution to music and to inspiration itself is undeniable.
At a recent conference, I caught a talk by Clive Thompson, the technology journalist and blogger, and author of Smarter Than You Think. The book’s subtitle is“How technology is changing our minds for the better,”which should tell you something about where this talk was heading.
Thompson says he started out among the army of skeptics who criticize today’s tidal wave of technology as a mind-numbing, soulcrushing dumbing-down of what it is to be human and creative. But along the way, he had a change of mind – presumably for the better. Far from threatening our humanity, he discovered this technology can actually empower us to create more, solve more, do more human-type stuff, than ever before in our history.
In his book, Thompson describes the human-versus-machine chess match between Grand Master Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue. Blue won, of course, but in the process, Kasparov had an inspiration. Understanding the different ways computers and humans play, he reasoned, what if really good human chess players teamed up with, instead of competed against, computers? The results, Thompson concludes, were a surprise. In one such tournament, the team that won didn’t have the fastest computer or the highest-ranking human players, but was the team where humans and machines collaborated best.
In this month’s cover story is The Art of Flight (page 30), Elizabeth Atkinson takes us on an exploration of art that is invading those bastions of technology, our airports. Far from the Orwellian, utilitarian bunkers of bygone years, today’s airports have become works of art in themselves, a blend of architecture and design, technology and function.
And along the way, they are increasingly incorporating art for art’s sake into the experience. So we don’t have to exit the airport to experience the cultural and aesthetic gifts of a community, seeking some out of the way museum or gallery. Instead airports are bringing those gifts to us; you might say modern airports are offering more than one kind of lift these days. Why? Because for most of us, technology that is lacking humanity is just that – lacking.
Like old Ctesibius before us, it seems we humans always find ourselves at the crossroads of technology and art. Where does collaboration – and inspiration – come from? Is it really possible to collaborate with machines to make our lives more productive, and more artful?
The answer, of course, is yes. We do it every day, in our work and in our travels. BT