Some Thoughts Regarding the Construction of a Fourth Generation Institute to Integrate Technology into a Creative and Humanized Culture

Trevor E. Batten
Amsterdam, December 1988

It was a dark and stormy night,
A man went searching for fire
With a lantern in his hand.
If he had known what fire was
He would have found it easier.

Zen parable

I. Strategic Theory

1. The Need for Strategy

i. The International Situation

a. International Agreement

After attending two international conferences (in Offenbach and Berlin) concerning the implications of the new media for art and design the most obvious conclusion is that the most common point of agreement is that there is no point of agreement.

This is of course largely to be expected, when intellectuals are in agreement there is no more discussion and without discussion there is no longer a social role for the intellectual.

Taking this into account one would expect to find at least a common point of disagreement, but even this communal point has not yet been clarified. Clearly, there are many pragmatic approaches, several vested interests (both economical and intellectual) and a growing feeling among an increasing number of people that, unless we begin to consciously analyze our options regarding the future, technological investment may impose an unacceptable restriction on our future development.

b. Economic Myopia

The present situation regarding the use of the new media by artists is actually a prime example of the destruction of a conceptual ecology by a shortsighted belief in economic pressure.

For some unknown reason the producers of electronic tools for commercial (graphic) designers and the researchers of electronic representation of photographic reality are not content with presenting their products in terms of what they really are but have a passionate need to present their artifacts as art. The banality of the results do no justice to the technical and scientific achievements hiding behind the facade and certainly prevent a serious use and discussion of the new media.

The resulting schism completely obliterates the fact that there is a long tradition of artistic exploration of the expressive qualities of new media. This tradition ranges from before the use of oil based paints to the present day and includes many early experiments by pioneers who, derived of credit, were the true originators of current commercially exploitable techniques.

By denying this tradition, the commercial system undermines itself by destroying the patterns of conceptual cross-fertilization which it ultimately exploits. Unfortunately, monolithic cultures destroy not only themselves but also the elements which might have restored the diversity once the error becomes manifest. Cultivating a desert is more difficult than initiating the erosion.

Paradoxically, an absence of criteria for evaluating concepts and events may create a chaos just as homogeneous as the result of applying a monolithic dogma. We need a variety of visions, a variety of ways of analyzing them and a variety of ways of synthesizing new visions, but we must also be able to evaluate these visions and to find a way of resolving possible conflicts between the results of the evaluation.

ii. The International Future

Art and culture can never be truly divorced from politics and economics. Art tries to manipulate the social aesthetic expressed in politics and politics tries to manipulate the the social status of art.

In a political-economic system based on short-term profit there is no use for culture except as a commercial product. In an economy where the production and distribution of material goods is becoming less important in relation to the economic exploitation of immaterial information and knowledge, cultural fads and fashions are big business.

In a world where chemical and nuclear pollution and the wastage of natural resources is threatening natural ecology a cultural and aesthetic decision may soon be required, either we support global ecology or we abandon natural physical systems entirely and develop a culture completely based on immaterial simulation of a supposed or created "reality".

In a culture based on economic exploitation, what role has an individual when their economic function is superseded by a machine?

How is an integrated Europe with an immaterial economy based on electronic communication to interface into other economies and cultures? Is inter-cultural competition to be based on sport or on war? Is inter-cultural interfacing not an aesthetic question?

Is it possible to divorce ethics from aesthetics?

Who is to decide the aesthetics of modern culture -- Confucius, Lao Tse, Buddha, Plato, Machiavelli, Locke, Bentham, Marx, Trotsky, Stalin, Goebbels, Gandhi, Mao, the plebeians, the merchants, the elites or the dictators? Shall we have a pluriform democratic culture or a monolithic dictated culture?

If we are to develop an artificial intelligence, we must also develop a natural wisdom.

2. The need for Responsibility

The greater our power to understand and to control global cultural, political, economic and ecological systems the greater is our responsibility to make our decisions with respect to these systems as wisely as possible.

How can there be a democratic discussion if our artists reduce themselves to entertainers and are unable to fulfil their role as developers and transmitters of cultural traditions and concepts?

How can the public decide about solutions when it has no experience of the problems and no way of visualizing them?

How can the politicians build cultural models if they have no cultural background and no understanding of the cultural process?

How can the technicians build machines if nobody knows what the machines are supposed to do?

We are all citizens, and we all have responsibility.

3. The need for an Aristocratic Culture

In a professional society it is difficult to remember that the fundaments of most professions were laid by amateurs and dilettantes with a genuine interest in the material which they investigated (sometimes even contrary to their own financial interests).

Probably no society has been able to develop a highly developed culture without the use of slaves to free the citizens from time wasting work. On the other hand, the divorce of social leaders from the realities of daily life is probably a prime cause of social decay.

In an automated society the economic exploitation of human beings may be redundant. A re-evaluation of the function of mankind in terms other than as a unit of economically exploitable labour may be essential. An intensive use of computers and the resulting complex problems of ontology and organization, implies a shift in human function away from the operative and towards the contemplative.

Automatization generates metamorphosis and meta-structures.

4. The need to Educate the Educators

Given the high level of uncertainty regarding the present situation it would seem that we are not yet in a position to develop training schemes for students or even training schemes for teachers.

What can we tell the public about the new media when the pioneers of the new media are hardly capable of discussing the implications because the universe of discourse has not yet been defined.

Probably there is not even a common language within which this universe can be defined and explored.

First we must develop a strategy which will enable us to develop a language to formulate the questions -- in order to begin the search for solutions.

5. The Need for Multi-dimensional Models (Continuity and Discontinuity)

i. The Need for a Bootstrapping System

Even the apparently simple question "Do the modern media imply a cultural break in Western Culture?" implies that we are capable of defining "Western Culture", that we have theoretical tools with which to analyze the implications of the modern media and that we can specify the cultural parameters in order to decide whether continuity or discontinuity is the most prevalent.

Clearly, the boundaries of cultural continuity would play a role in defining the culture, so that a cultural break must either imply the end of the culture or a re-definition of the culture in order to reduce the break to a shift within a continuum.

The tools which we use to analyze our culture are of course part of our culture (and can be used to define that culture). The result of our analysis may cause us to redefine both our culture and (by implication) our tools. If we allow our definition to modify our actions then our actions are limited by our definitions of our tools; if we do not let our culture modify our actions then we have no culture. The question therefore defines the answer and the answer therefore implies the question.

The problem is that our cultural tradition does not include conceptual tools capable of accepting the existence of such a tautological interaction between subject and object or cause and effect. Therefore it is impossible for our culture to be analyzed and understood without a radical change in our cultural tradition.

ii. The Dialectics of Theory and Praxis

Rapid technological change (which appears to be becoming an autonomous process seemingly opposed to the dialectics of theory and praxis) demands the rapid training of technicians in order to maximalize the economic exploitation of the technology.

Rapid technological change demands a profound educational and cultural support system capable of sustaining the continual cultural re-evaluation required in a dynamic society.

If we are in danger of forgetting the importance of the dialectics of theory and praxis, we should study the effects of Western technology on indigenous peoples throughout the world. What we have done to so-called primitive cultures is what we are in danger of doing to ourselves now. If we are not careful we may all find ourselves in the position of an Eskimo with a refrigerator, an electric fire and a vacuum cleaner capable of clearing snow.

iii. Technological Over-commitment

In a rapidly changing technological environment one needs to be aware of the paradox of the delaying advance: in order to be in the forefront of technological advance one must make a large investment in equipment which may commit one to a certain strategy which may be obsolete even before the equipment is fully operational.

A possible solution may be to invest heavily in conceptual analysis before starting, keep material investments to a functional minimum and share physical resources as much as possible between partners using different strategies in order to spread investment risks. A phased development is essential, as is a period of re-evaluation between phases.

iv. The need for a Conceptual Ecology

In an unified Europe with centers of education and research interconnected by means of an instant electronic communication network there is a danger of conceptual uniformity. This is especially dangerous in new areas of development where there are a limited number of experts working in areas with many economic and political implications.

A dynamic mixture of conflicting (formalized) interests and paradigms can provide a stimulating polemic. Conflict and chaos should never be completely removed from a system if it is to be creative. The amount of chaos acceptable (or desirable) is probably a question of individual and cultural aesthetic.

II. Towards a Universe of Discourse

1. The need for a Meta-Linguistic Interface

In order to establish a common universe of discourse a language is required in order to analyze and define this universe and to make statements regarding it.

Unfortunately, language is not neutral. The elements and the grammar of a language are derived from ontological assumptions regarding the universe which is to be primarily represented by that language. The language defines the universe and the universe justifies the language.

Perhaps the only way to escape from this inescapable tautology is to accept it on the basic level of existing languages and try to develope a new language and universe of discourse which in principle is not concerned with defining a new universe but with the relationships between existing universes of discourse. Quite likely, this meta-linguistic interface will then naturally generate new universes of discourse, in which case the process will probably need to repeat itself on a higher level of abstraction. One may then expect a continuing process to develop, based on periods of increasing complexity due to practical expansion of theoretical concepts followed by periods in which the existing pragmatic situation becomes conceptually simplified. In a complex nexus of universes one cannot expect that all parts of the system will be in the same phase of expansion or contraction.

When designing a new institute for art and media technology it may be sensible to consider this organization as being a linguistic structure not only capable of making statements about the use of practical and conceptual tools and their relationships to cultural environments, but also capable of making statements regarding its own use of tools to generate these statements. This may be a way to ensure a dynamic response to the institutions own development within a changing environment within which it is (itself) a principal instrument of change.

2. Some Initial Tools

i. The Computer as a common matrix

Some people suggest that the computer is a common medium used by many disciplines and that it should therefore function as a common language. To be honest, my own reasons for investigating the computer as an artistic medium are based on this assumption. Nevertheless, one should be aware of the dangers of confusing cause and effect.

The computer, based on the concept of the Universal Turing Machine, is a multi-purpose machine capable of simulating any process which may be described in terms of one of the languages simulatable by the machine.

Certainly, the same machine may (even apparently at the same time) appear to understand Cobol, C en Lisp and may be of practical assistance to both users who have a natural affinity with one (or more) of these (and other) programming languages or to users who are even unaware that a language has been used.

Strangely enough, the universal simulation machine has given birth to a number of specialized languages which are more or less specific to the applications which generated them. An attempt by the Pentagon to develop ADA, a universal computer language, appears to be about as successful as the development of Esperanto was. True, there is a permanent evolution and cross-fertilization, both between the languages and between the languages and their applications but this occurs because (except on the primitive binary level which everyone is trying to avoid) there are fundamental differences between the applications.

It would seem that the computer is not a common matrix for communication. On the contrary, it is the failed attempts to make it a common matrix which are generating interesting insights into linguistic processes. Possibly these insights may eventually lead to a common system of communication but, if achieved, this unification might reduce the dynamic creative interaction of different disciplines to an uncreative tautology expressed in a single language. This may be the basis of a paradox by which every dynamic and successful culture eventually makes itself extinct by reducing environmental complexity to such an extent that the decadent pursuit of pleasure is apparently the only possible remaining activity.

Focus on the computer as universal machine may also prevent us from seeing other things (such as holography, transputers, networks and even natural systems) as useful models of systems that generate and communicate (new) ideas.

ii. The Computer as an Organisational Problem

Because the computer is a machine there is a tendency to consider it as being principally the concern of the technical scientists. Certainly there is a tendency for scientists and technicians to try and persuade others that the computer should be left to them and one should not trouble ones pretty little head with problems about what goes on "under the motor-cap".

In practice, because the computer is a universal simulation machine, the technical problem is almost reduceable to the question "How many bits can we get on the head of a pin?". Questions regarding which processes can be simulated, how they are to be simulated and what are the implications of the simulation are often infinitely more complex, interesting and, in general, more relevant to the social and commercial structure of society.

Gradually it is becoming (almost painfully) obvious that the principle problems involving the computer (even on a technical level) are concerned with the definition and description of universes of use and the organization of the resulting complexity. Perhaps in the future the question "How can the computer scientist use the artist?" may be even more important than "How can the artist use the computer?".

iii. A Linguistic definition of Technology

Just as some musicologists and some art historians need to be reminded that history does not end around 1900, so do most people who talk about technology need to be reminded that the concept of technology was not discovered in mid-twentieth century Europe or America.

By considering technology as a linguistic process (which generates sets of objects, procedures and grammars in the physical domain) the technological process becomes easier to study in a broader context. Our understanding of the effects of the introduction of iron smelting on stone age societies, or the effect of the steam engine on Victorian rural England may be relevant to our understanding of the post-industrial electronic revolution (and visa versa).

The problem is (once again) how can one develop a "linguistic interface" which is as ontologicaly neutral as possible but still enabling a study of the relationships between grammatical structures existing in different domains.

iv. A Linguistic definition of Art

Art can also be seen as a linguistic process producing (material or immaterial) objects which are not only generated by complex interactions of personal, social and technique oriented grammars but are also a way of defining these grammars (or traditions as they may be called).

The culturally most important function of art is not its financial aspect or even its expressive aspect but (to the contrary) is concerned with its role in the formalization process.

Formalization is important not only because a work of art (in any medium) is a perceivable structure defining a position within a nexus of traditions (or grammars) and therefore able to function as a focus for personal and social identification but also because it is the struggle with the formal structure that often forces the artist to break the tautology of his own thinking.

Every artist has experienced the autonomy of their own work. It is the excitement of wanting to know what the work is going to become that causes the addiction to the working process. Art is not the mirror of the artist's soul, it is the alchemical laboratory which transforms that soul. The observer can only attempt to reconstruct that process but without direct experience there is a great danger of confusing the moon with the finger that points to the moon. This ambiguity may be useful in breaking the tautology of the thought processes in the viewer.

v. A Linguistic definition for Science

Because the paradigms and methodologies of science are more explicit and universal than those in art, it should be relatively simple to define science as a grammatical process designed to uncover the grammatical processes active in the world around us.

In practice, the formal demands of the scientific process do (often) make the scientist aware of inconsistencies in the current working hypothesis -- just as the formal demands of a (non-explicit) aesthetic may force changes to be made in the current working hypothesis of the artist. Nevertheless, with the possible exception of mathematics and/or logics there are no formal processes within science to generate the models which form the basis of the scientific process.

Art and science then appear to be truly complimentary. Artists develop strategies for generating works of art which are models of unspecified universes. The truth of these models is then pragmatically tested by the public by means of the simple formula "If the cap (model) fits then wear (use) it". The modern scientist uses the same formula although the methodology of the test is somewhat more demanding and a magic hat is required to generate the model. Science is a model testing process and art is a model generating process.

vi. Concept-driven Technology or Technology-driven Concepts

A linguistic approach to artistic, scientific and technological processes would probably make it easier to unravel the interaction between the way technologies may be developed out of existing needs and the way in which new desires may be created by new technical possibilities (the artistic problem of form and content).

Linguistic research may thus make it easier to understand the current period of technological change and possibly help to develop methods to evaluate and mediate the change.

At this level of abstraction it is impossible to avoid the implications of political structures. Not only is there the practical question of the survival of a political-economic structure which will permit (even for its own self-survival) a high level of undirected (and unpredictable) social (and politicological) research. There is also the question of visualization, analysis and evaluation of the cultural implications of competing political/social/economic models in order to facilitate democratic discussion in a period of increased complexity and social evolution.

A more dynamic concept of aesthetics is also needed, possibly based on a series of personal and social equilibria. Why (throughout history) have some political structures tried to repress some aesthetic systems and to encourage others?

Is it possible for artists to do "aesthetic research" and to produce new aesthetic topologies which can be translated into viable and acceptable social models? Is this desirable, and for whom?

vii. An Artistic Meta-language

Although discussion between different scientific disciplines may not be completely free of problems the situation is certainly much easier than in the arts where the absence of a common language makes it difficult to compare basic concepts.

Traditionally, mathematics and logic have formed the binding element within science and also the basis of the division (when present) between science and art. The ambiguity of art, and the complexities of the artistic space made the artistic languages mutually unacceptable to the Euclidian and Platonic scientific languages essentially derived from the geometry of a flat Earth. It was probably the unacceptability of the common scientific language that was responsible for the artists autistic efforts to develop an individual means of expression which, paradoxically, made communication impossible.

The importance of a meta-language in formalizing the artistic formalization process can be seen by the relatively easy integration of the computer into musical practice where a programming language could be seen as a variation of traditional notation compared to the situation in the visual arts where any explicit meta-language not only does not exist but is positively rejected as an intrusion into the freedom of the artist.

viii. Modern traditions

Recent scientific theories in astronomy, sub-atomic physics, mathematics, logic, philosophy, linguistics and computer science have (at least in theory) completely destroyed the scientific belief in Euclid and Plato. By traditional standards, scientific models in physics are becoming more bizarre than the nightmares of even the most neurotic artist. It is probably the artist more than the scientist who preserves an unnecessary barrier between science and art.

The successful application of scientific multi-dimensional parametric space to the description of musical events (by Xenakis) and the resulting effect on compositional practice demonstrates the possibility of integrating scientific meta-languages into artistic practice.

The incredible advances in computer simulation of photographic realism also prove that mathematical representations can (as Linehan claims) relate algorithmic representation to the iconic, although the renaissance experimenters with perspective and protective geometry knew that. Probably it is the fact that the computer freaks seem to be addicted to photographic realism in Euclidian geometrical space while neither realism nor Euclid are particularly relevant to modern art history, and not the principle of algorithmic representation, which creates the artistic resistance. Certainly, despite a general rejection of formalism in the visual arts the pioneers of twenty years ago were mostly (due to a tradition of constructivism) attracted to the computer because of their interest in an algorithmic approach to visual art. Unfortunately, the scientific knowledge regarding representation of objects and processes and the ability to implement this knowledge in the computer was very primitive twenty years ago, while at present the commercialization of the society plus the individualization of computing via the personal computer seems to make it difficult to continue the earlier tradition because information is now valuable and dispersed.

The fact that Xenakis was also an architect is significant, probably architecture and (especially) town planning have the strongest meta-linguistic tradition within the visual arts. Possibly, the way many aspects of communal requirements can be integrated within the single multi-dimensional system formed by a city could be a useful model for a more general artistic meta-language.

Research may prove the fundamental difference between art and science to be based on the ambiguity of interpretation of the artistic model (which is also permissable in pure mathematics), and the freedom of the artist to change the domain of interpretation of the model as part of the creative strategy.

This is of course what Gödel did and what was forbidden by traditional logicians, because they all knew that any theoretical (or ideological) model destroys itself when interpreted. That is the generative paradox of art and the destructive paradox of science. The differences between art and science based on the topologies of the ontological spaces has (in theory) disappeared by the scientific acceptance of non-Euclidian space.

III. Practical Strategies

1. An Initial Structure

a. Conceptual Structure

Parallel to a practical division in terms of work spaces equipped and dedicated to specific activities such as video and sound recording, digital and analog signal processing, listening, viewing and reading rooms is the following inter-disciplinary conceptual organization suggested. By assuming all machines and human procedures to be grammatical structures operative on different domains the first step is made towards the construction of a conceptual interface permitting a truly multi-disciplinary approach to media technology.

i. Physical meta-domain ( Technological and Natural Systems )

ii. Conceptual meta-domain (Cultural Software)

iii. Meta-linguistic Interface (A Theoretical Ecology of Ontologies)

Development of theoretical tools to enable an intelligent multi-disciplinary discussion without too much misunderstanding or loss of integrity between the disciplines.

b. Procedural Structure

Basic activities such as research, education and dissemination of concrete or theoretical results are not incompatible with the above conceptual structure because these activities can also be considered as grammatical operations in different domains.

c. Pedagogical Structure

In order to be able to understand the relationships between different techniques it would be useful if there was a common framework. In some cases, the fact that this categorization does not work may also lead to new insights. In general the following points should be considered as important:

d. Project Structure

Any temporary set of procedures designed to modify a state (or set of states) of any system in any domain can be considered to be a project.

The main function of the institution should be the formulation, realization and presentation of (multi-disciplinary) projects concerning technical, sensory and cultural aspects of media technology approached from a scientific and/or artistic viewpoint. A project oriented structure could be expected to contain the following elements:

- Formulation of Project Aims

- Practical Realization of Project

- Supervision of Project

- Presentation and Evaluation of Project

e. Organisational Structure

The conceptual structure could be used throughout the whole institute or just within a single work group if required. It might be a potentially interesting organizational structure if organized not in terms of rigid departments such as "Visual Art" and "Music" but in terms of elements, operations and domains.

The institute would then itself become an multi-dimensional procedural model with potentially different structures being experienced by the individual participant dependant on their own activity or function within the institute at that moment.

The salaries administration may, for example, see a hierarchy (based on age and educational background) which may not be visible during theoretical discussions or the concrete production of a video-tape. A person may be a lecturer in one seminar and a student in another, today a composer of musical structures and tomorrow the subject of scientific research. Each change in function may imply a different nexus of inter-disciplinary connections, which must not be made impossible by the internal organization of the institute.

A multi-dimensional unstructured data-base may be a useful model for the internal organization -- and one may need one to understand it!

f. Intern and Extern Interfacing

A consequence of the dissolution of well defined boundaries between the activities within the institute is that there would be no specific department concerned with the general public. This may have advantages. In general, everybody not working in the institute may be considered to be "public". In some cases, for example during a lecture or a concert, staff members would be considered to be "public".

The function of an external interface may be not only be concerned with the presentation of concerts and lectures, the distribution of texts and tapes and the organization of workshops but also the coordination and possible financing of projects initiated by individuals or other institutions, the maintenance of libraries and the recruiting of potential participants. The development of ways of presenting knowledge that allow teachers to concentrate on discussion and interpretation would be a useful task.

Television programs (from the BBC) such as "The Ascent of Man", "Life on Earth" and The Royal Institute Lectures are excellent examples of complex material well presented.

An internal interface would of course be responsible for internal coordination and communication including information storage and retrieval.

It is assumed that the prime responsibility of an interface is communication (in a broad sense) and that the interface can be modified as a result of changes concerning the elements which require interfacing.

2. Towards a Practical Start

Probably the greatest potential danger of any large scale institution is a monolithic inflexibility. Possibly, certain elements of the plan may even be obsolete before the system is fully operative. The basic problem is that each of the following four elements may have influence on one or more of the other elements. The question is -- in which order should they be decided?

People suggest topics and activities, these imply people and facilities and the facilities and the people suggest systems of activities and interfacing.

The best answer is possibly that one should just begin and see what happens. In practice this may be chaotic and an efficient way of loosing friends.

Despite the practical disadvantages, it might still be advisable to get started as soon as possible. Probably, facilities for work are available in cooperating institutions. Potential participants should meet each other as soon as possible to discuss concrete issues and possible strategies, to discover mutual interests and antipathies, to specify working requirements and to experiment with systems of communication and collaboration.

A series of confrontational workshops, seminars, presentations and publications could be used to plan and select permanent and temporary teams and to organize external contacts.

Activities could include workshops with students and teachers from different backgrounds (and countries), exhibitions and concerts of potential participants, written and verbal discussion via newsletters and seminars and formal participation in academic research projects. If the institution is expected to cater for a wide range of interests and educational levels in the public, then it should begin as soon as possible to experiment with ways of integrating these levels.

Considering the popularity of virtual memory and virtual disk drives, it might be worthwhile experimenting with virtual institutions. Taking the risk that things can go wrong in the pre-planning phase probably reduces the risk in the post-planning period. Prototyping is a useful concept.

3. Some Initial Topics for Study and Discussion

- Open or Closed Universe

- Context free and context bound

- Non Euclidean Geometry

- An Understanding of Metaphors

- A Concept of Aesthetics

- Social Software

- 1st, 2nd and 3rd World interfacing

- Technological Hardware