Research as a Cultural Activity

Stephen Wilson, Art Department, San Francisco State University

** Note a modified version of this essay entitled " Why I Believe Science and Technology
Should Have No Borders"  was published as an opinion editorial in the London Times Education Supplement on 7 December, 2001.


This has been research's century.  Our lives have been radically changed by the results of scientific inquiry and technological innovation.  From play to work, our lives have been filled with new gadgets and shaped by new understandings.  Even more, research has changed basic concepts about the origins of the universe, the nature of life, time, space, and humanity.

We have not yet reaped research's full promise.  Many view research as something isolated, best left to specialists.  Its processes and ideas are dimly understood and seen as alien to the main cultural flow, different in kind from ideas in literature, politics, or philosophy. Research is so profound in its implications for life and thought that it cannot be left to scientists alone. Science and technology must enter into the heart of general discourse and understanding.

Research agendas can determine the flow of the future. For example, researchers working on ideas such as ubiquitous computing (making objects intelligent and aware of their surroundings) are working on more than just new products.  They are transforming the primordial relationship of humans to inanimate objects.  The way that research unfolds will become a crucial part of our cultural heritage.

Decisions about research agendas require wide participation by those outside the sciences.  Sociologists and historians of science note that the fate of research ideas is not decided only by the disinterested determination of the strength of ideas.  Academic disciplines patrol the borders of their paradigms by controlling career, publishing and funding.  Mavericks are disciplined for transgressing the limits. Non-conforming ideas are squashed.

The world of technological innovation is similarly constrained.   I have seen marvelous research ideas abandoned because marketing departments decided that not enough money could be made from them.  I have seen entire R&D departments (and their hundreds of person-years of inquiries) wiped out by the winds of corporate politics.

We as a culture can not afford to lose these ideas and bursts of imagination. We should be wary of inquiries too easily abandoned.  The participation of individuals coming from the diverse perspectives of disciplines outside the sciences (such as arts, humanities, and social sciences) could help to insure that the widest range of ideas get pursued.

Some may suggest that there already is wide participation via citizen review committees or academic critiques of research.  I mean something more fundamental and proactive -- practitioners from many fields actually participating in the inquiries, determining their own research goals and undertaking their own studies.

There are signs it is already beginning to happen.  The arts used to keep watch on the cultural frontier.  As the cutting edge of culture became technological and scientific, the arts temporarily lost their way.  They are reclaiming that sentinel role and demonstrating the possibilities for research outside the confines of science and engineering.  Artists around the world are establishing their own research agendas and labs.  They are furthering scientific knowledge and creating technological innovations as they pursue non-utilitarian research for purposes such as personal expression, social commentary, or basic curiosity. Some examples include stem cell sculptures, genetically engineered bacteria with texts embedded, new kinds of toxin-extracting plants for public gardens, broadcasts from inside the stomach, brain wave controlled music, performances focused on plasma state transformations of energy and matter, sound events of amplified seismic waves, zero-gravity dance, location based music determined by gps, artificial life forms breeding and evolving on the Internet, artificially intelligent digital creatures that can read the emotional tone of speech, robots that can do acrobatics, movies that can read the viewer's position, gesture, facial identity, and so on. Organizations such as Arts Catalyst, the Wellcome Trust art-science grants, and the journal Leonardo  present research and art without the usual barriers.

There are challenges to this kind of research.  Many in the sciences and engineering may doubt that "dabbling" outsiders can be serious contributors.  Those from other fields will need to master new skills and information.  All will need to learn how to value and learn from what other disciplines can offer.

If the challenges can be overcome, the rewards are great.  Our culture will be enriched by new lines of inquiry opened.  And researchers will be rewarded by a new kind of public support and understanding that will replace the current mystification, hostility and distrust.



For more details about the author, the artists described and the book, Information Arts: Intersections of Art Science and Technology (MIT Press,2001), please visit:
http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~swilson/book/infoartsbook.html