Humans like Widgets in a GUI

As a creative person I enjoy finding inspiration from the world around me, including books, news articles, and the like. Often I find interviews coming out of FastCompany to be insightful and useful. That isn’t to say I agree with everything they share. Take, for example, Facebook’s lead engineering innovator and her statement about artists, scientists and engineers from the February 2017 edition:

“There’s very little difference between scientists and engineers and artists–they just use different tools. We want to make things that haven’t been made before, and that’s tremendously exciting.” ~Regina Dugan

I have to laugh because I think, “Who is she kidding? These three fields are incredibly different from one another. They are not just separated by the use of tools.”

We have to think of purpose. We have to think about the motivations of the people in these fields too. What of their ethical codes, mindsets, abilities, and personal eccentricities?

I know some engineers truly believe that their work is like art in that it requires a bit of skill, training, and creative problem solving (my stepfather among them). While the lines may blur at the corners, those dedicated in these fields are not the equivalent of widgets in a GUI to be arranged at will by some VP.

Engineering may involve creative problems solving, science may embrace some of the aesthetic tenants found in art (such as that symmetry exist in nature as well as in the things humans make). Even “Art” on the whole may include craftspeople, and some engineers and scientists are technological craftspeople. But “Art” also includes higher art forms which recognize and value the importance of aesthetics all by themselves.

Art also recognizes the deep need to shape human environments using considerations beyond efficiency, durability, transportability, or other basic utilitarian agendas. Not only that, art (in its purest form) embraces its ability to directly challenge how we view the world and one another. Some of the best art can be thought of as “timeless” or beyond the concerns of the here and now. What does it mean to be a fully realized person 2000 years ago? What does it mean to be a fully realized person today? What about in 1000 years from now? And all this without necessarily paying homage to the value of the dollar.

Since when have scientists or engineers ever been dedicated to helping people reflect on the purpose of life? When has anyone paid an engineer to just problem solve, without the purpose of using such innovations to make money? Anyone ever pay a scientist to create new things simply because they are beautiful to behold?

A bastard child of fine art is advertising (a stepchild is illustration). So I suppose science and engineering have more in common with these art “forms”, because their purpose is to produce things which are motivated by the need to make someone else money.

Fine art has more of a relationship to philosophy, history, social science, literature, dance, and music than it does to science and engineering. Philosophy often asks “why?” about everything, and often challenges us to consider “What makes a good life?” History is dedicated to answering “what happened” and “how” and gives us the tools to figure out how not to repeat the mistakes of our collective pasts. Social science asks “how could we arrange ourselves differently” and “what social problems are the most important to address”. Literature shares insights into all of these things via story which is like a microcosm of “How so?” and “What if?” Then there’s dance and music which are in direct tune with the human body and spirit and the infinite (and ever changing quality of) human emotional landscapes. All of these liberal arts have the common touchstone– human culture. Each adding to it, commenting on it, embracing it, re-arranging it, and sometimes flat-out rejecting it.

In my view, the wonder and amazement I gain from fine art is how it lends itself so readily to the purpose of uplifting the human spirit and how it can provide insights into the human condition, soothing during times of stress. My favorite aspects of art come from times when it can remind us what is truly great about being alive.

That being said, artists are not divorced from the practical knowledge and skills coming out of science and engineering, which can help artists realize their visions. For example, knowing a bit of physics and engineering can inspire an artist to work large-scale on public sculpture. Additionally, knowing some chemistry and physics can help a glassblower produce gravity defying luminous works which dazzle even more brilliantly given changes in lighting.

But again, motivation, value, focus, purpose, these all separate liberal arts from science and engineering. I think it is narcissistic to assume scientists and engineers could do the work writers, historians, artists, musicians, philosophers, or social scientists dedicate their lives and expertise to pursuing. I think it doubly frustrating when an engineer-cum-VP, such as Regina Dugan, combines narcissism with a disdain for areas of expertise outside her field.