Down at the Cross­roads

Art for art’s sake is more than a slo­gan. It’s food for the soul

Business Traveler (USA) - - TALKING POINT - — Dan Booth Ed­i­to­rial Di­rec­tor

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

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