A couple of things came across my desk recently that gave rise to this post. I was looking at a TED talk by Disney’s first head Imagineer, Bran Ferren.
Bran was making the point that things that stood the test of time tended to be a perfect blend of art, design, science and engineering. His case in point was the Pantheon in Rome. It’s still standing, centuries after its construction. It’s still a thing of beauty. The technology that was used in its construction and in fact invented to make its construction possible at all is still a marvel. Some smart thinking went into its conception. The resultant building has some pretty unique characteristics, even today (passive, air conditioning, by venturi effect, for example)
I’m in the fortunate position of being an artist, designer, scientist and engineer. I know people say you should specialise, but that didn’t happen to me. I learned all four disciplines, so I feel I am qualified to comment. To me, some of the very best work we can do, as a human species, involves making things that are artful, have been designed well, to accommodate the environment and human needs, have applied science to make their construction possible and are engineered to be safe, elegant, long lasting and trustworthy.
Think about today’s modern products and achievements. Hardly any cover all four bases. Even the ubiquitous iPhone, which is thought to be artful and undoubtedly relies on a lot of science to make it possible at all, has significant design flaws and while the engineering is amazing, the recycling, longevity and reparability aspects are woeful. I don’t think the iPhone will last as long as the Pantheon, or be fully functional in several centuries. The engineering and design were corrupted by the concerns of the balance sheet.
How about the World Wide Web? Below is a picture of the world’s very first web page. It’s a historic thing:
What you can see is that it is, despite its simplicity, quite artful. It’s laid out with care. The text is informative, plain and accessible. The design is nice. There is simplicity evident on the surface and beneath it, in the source code, which was the reason that the technology was so widely adopted. It relied on the science of networking and semi conductor manufacture to have a fabric upon which to run. How was the engineering? Well, it turned out to be unsafe and untrustworthy. It also didn’t consider archival or version control, so wasn’t designed to be long lasting. It scores poorly on engineering. Consequently, I predict it won’t last. Not in terms of centuries, at least. It will be replaced. We can do better and further, we must do better.
It’s nice to have the ideals of combining art, design, science and engineering and it can be argued that we really cannot afford to neglect any of the four branches of human ingenuity, but it’s rather distressing to learn that the proponents of this approach, a firm called Applied Minds, have consulted for weapons manufacturers. Why would you need weapons of mass destruction to be long lasting? They’re not worthy of human ingenuity at all, in my view. To create an artful, well designed weapons system that uses cutting edge science and is engineered well might be a nice intellectual exercise, but we must never forget that the ultimate purpose of such a weapons system is to violently and somewhat indiscriminately kill people. That’s not work that’s worth doing. It’s taking a lot of spectacular human thought and putting it to the service of murder. That’s just plain psychopathic. The end goal is infantile and psychotic, irrespective of how much brilliant human ingenuity you wrap it in.
I understand that a firm like Applied Minds cannot survive without seeking out the money and that in our twisted and warped collective imaginations, we have allowed the creation of weapons to absorb huge proportions of the global gross domestic product. However, if the artists, designers, scientists and engineers, our creators, don’t stand up to destruction and those that would plunge us into unbridled, organised murder of each other, then who will? I find it sad that people that are so right about what it takes to make things of beauty that last would have allowed themselves to become so corrupted by a poorly designed monetary and economic system, which they also have the power to re-imagine and redesign, but which they take as a given. It shows that they missed the big picture.
The monetary and economic system that gives breath to and becomes utterly co-dependent upon the continuance of an insane military-industrial complex, at the expense of all other human concerns, is the pressing problem to solve. It is the thing that must be redesigned, with a view to aesthetics, enabled by science and constructed according to good engineering principles. That hasn’t happened, to date and those that have the skills and mind set to do so, design weapons systems instead, leaving a machine that manufactures poverty, gross inequality and environmental destruction, in place.
When I began writing this article, I had in mind a short piece in praise of the combination of art, design, science and engineering and wanted to argue that we simply cannot afford to fail to combine these four things in everything we do. I wanted to call for more cross-disciplinary training. Using myself as an example, I wanted to sing the praises of the combination of fields. What surprised me, while writing and researching the piece, was how saddened I would become that the leading lights in the area were spending their precious, limited time on Earth contracting for agents of mass destruction, merely to accumulate paper trading tokens, issued by fiat, by private interests. It’s utterly depressing, to me, that the best practitioners are so trapped inside a mental cage of our own making that we cannot, collectively, begin to address the dismantling of ugly institutions, which do not function for humanity’s ultimate benefit at all.
We’ve not begun to apply our artistic skills, our design disciplines, our scientific knowledge and our engineering practice to redesigning the world’s economy, monetary system and as a consequence, dismantling our excessive preparations for massive, total self-destruction and annihilation.
You have to conclude that if we know how, but choose not to, we’re either terminally wicked or criminally insane, as a species.