Saturday, June 25, 2016

Age of Approximation

Screenshot from Iain McGilchrist called the Divided Brain on RSA Animate and TED.

“The Age of Enlightenment is Dead.” Thank you, Mr. Danny Hillis, for putting this in writing, and in the new MIT Journal of Design and Science no less.

Mr. Hillis makes the case, in a brief but very coherent treatise, that science is due for an update. In fact, it is not just science, but the very idea of human endeavor and progress. I recall the TED talk given by Iain McGilchrist called the Divided Brain. (This guy is author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, 2009). In his talk, he describes how the brain is split in two; the truth is more nuanced than that, and this is the point of the talk in fact. He goes on – there are two metaphorical sides, and they each do two different things, and the reason we tend to be right-handed is because the corresponding side of our brain is for active, intentional manipulation. And on – throughout history the pendulum swings, and one day we may regard the right side as the “right” side (because the Age of Enlightenment made us value the left side so much).

In the art classroom, I repeat these ideas, and ask them what the world would be like if everyone was “right-brained,” or artistically minded. Imagine if everyone was an artist, and nobody a scientist, all emotion and flight-of-fancy, and no bridges, tunnels, infrastructure, economic policy, institutions of higher learning, no numbers, no logic, and nothing to separate sense from nonsense. Crazy.

Then again, I can sort of imagine a world where artificial intelligence does all that stuff for us, so we can do more human things, more messy, emotional, intuitive things. I highly doubt this is what Mr. Hillis is talking about in his essay, but I’m quite excited nonetheless that he’s talking, period. He says right here:

“As our technological and institutional creations have become more complex, our relationship to them has changed. We now relate to them as we once related to nature. Instead of being masters of our creations, we have learned to bargain with them, cajoling and guiding them in the general direction of our goals. We have built our own jungle, and it has a life of its own.”

Danny Hillis, MIT Journal of Design and Science, March 2016

Post Script:
What the hell does all this have to do with the Language of Smell?

A primary objective of Hidden Scents is to present the idea that after the wave of Big Data crashes on the shores of human civilization we will have entered a new era, one in which certainty itself is no longer valued in the way it once was. We already see this today, when we ask what it is that separates us from our imminent AI overlords. Humans have intuition, something an algorithm can never have, by its nature. Humans can do this thing called “messy thinking,” or fuzzy thinking, or half-thinking. This is what leads us to make novel discoveries and connections and to be creative in general. This is what makes us not computers. And in its uncanny way, this kind of mental activity is at the core of olfaction. To smell something is to navigate a sea of data too large to fully comprehend. In this sea, one can approximate, but never ascertain. (The source of a particular smell is only verified by one of the other senses, like when you actually find that dead mouse under the fridge.)

So if the Age of the Enlightenment is dead, then perhaps olfaction (and more specifically the language of olfaction) can serve to carve the path ahead.

Well, perhaps you think I’m a bit too right-brained to be writing about such things. Thanks for reading at least.

No comments:

Post a Comment