Inscribed Disciplinary Deconstruction

It is, somewhat ironically, an often echoed worry that media offers an echo chamber for all of us today. Facebook algorithms sort media content on your feed by likelihood of garnering a click—so people see the things they already agree with—and sort friends higher than media content—so content is filtered through a self-selecting social circle, not journalists. Curated media often fails to push people outside of their ideological comfort zones to encounter other ways of approaching the world, polarization follows. But people not only curate content, they curate models of thinking, encountering or avoiding an expansion of a lens on the world.

The scientific world espouses, of course, science thinking. And it’s a world where expertise is rewarded: in grants, promotions, accolades etc. And expertise is, by it’s nature, exclusive. Experts are myopic. They are peer reviewed. Look at Steven Pinker’s writing on science lingo to understand why there are actual incentives for writing inaccessible science. Think of how relevant genetics is to you, and how inappropriately intimidating it is to approach the science of the stuff that makes you up. Think of the same with philosophy, neuroscience—concepts that form your core rendered irrelevant by expertise. Like so many spaces, the scientific worldview can become an exclusive, stuffy silo.

In my mind none of these siloes split or bubbles burst without some show of proof, an example of an object or happening that exists in between or outside of the boundaries you preach opening.

So you build amazing projects. Projects that couldn’t come from just one world, that cut across boundaries of culture, geography, discipline. See Margaret Livingstone use the neuroscience of human vision to explain Mona Lisa’s smile here. It’s an example of science taking seriously another discipline, opening up vocabularies and tools for a deeper reading of overlapping space with art. And there is much work to be done to expose and expand overlapping areas of art and science. But I think the integration of disciplines must be taken further than exploring overlapping space.

See Neri Oxman build a fully functional digestive system in a fashionable futuristic dress. This project is not about overlapping space between fashion and biology, not about art and science sharing space. It’s about the two coming together to create something completely new, something an expert in either could not create alone.

Examples from my own ‘making’ process are informative. I did a piece titled Small Beauty. I was curious about intimacy in detail—I’d had my cheek pulled, back slapped, belly patted by a Jewish grandmother for so much of my childhood and wanted to explore both this fine line between care/violence and the amazing differences in everyday experience between micro and macro scale.

And I’m proud of that image. But it simply takes an 1000fps imaging tool from a Physics lab and repurposes it for art. It is interdisciplinary, rather than anti-disciplinary, to borrow a term from MIT’s Media Lab. It finds common ground, rather than letting two disciplines rise together to new ground.

A better example of what I hope for is this project. Using some robotics, extending the myth and science of divining rods, and open to interruption and improvisation, I created a strange situation in which people could encounter their own subconscious through an interaction with a mechanized tree. Nobody had any way of accessing this archetypal ‘tree’ concept before engaging with this project. It sits neither in siloes of art or science, and takes people to a space that is an existential ‘in-between’.

Breeding a culture of curiosity is breeding a culture of diversity. It begins with ‘Inspiration at the Intersection’ between disciplines. Building projects that function as lightning rods to integrate and electrify.

And it’s not just to inspire people to create cool stuff. It’s because it often takes an outsider’s eye to see complex systems that experts mired in one niche fail to notice. Incredible work happens when newcomers look with fresh eyes at old problems, when teams are comprised of as many disciplines as there are directions to take a challenge.

This is why Proust revealed the fallibility of memory centuries before neuroscientists. This is why data scientists are inviting designers in to point out new connections in complex systems and help tell the stories in systemic connections. This is why education policymakers are inviting neuroscientists into their offices and vice versa, working on amazing science based policy work. This is why metaphor is often so useful in mathematics, why phase transitions in matter are often created by the same math that differentiates levels of complexity from neurons→mind, from city→culture.

And creating spaces where disciplinary outsiders feel welcome to provide insights and inspiration begins with flinging the doors wide and recognizing that an expert may be the wrong one for the task at times. I’m excited about citizen science. I’m excited that the MIT Media Lab is anti rather than interdisciplinary, learning without boundaries, not breeding boundaries into people again to push against them. I’m excited about educational models that don’t just break down disciplinary boundaries, but refuse to introduce them in the first place. I’m excited about creating a spark, and not fearing a fire.

Step 1 is accessibility. If it’s tech, make like littleBits or Makey Makey and take advantage of how powerful play can be as an opener. If it’s Science, maybe write like Joi Ito’s Journal of Design and Science—cut peer review out of the equation and create a conversation where, since nobody could possibly be such a broad expert, everyone is welcome. If it’s content, put it online, open, free. I see a world rising where expertise is democratized by work like this and it’s hugely exciting.

My two cents, my two projects I’m working on at the moment, are this and this. Hopefully you all see how they contribute to this rising tide. Please reach out and engage.

Adam Horowitz

Other references:

Not an intersection. An otherwise unachievable shared space. 

Not an intersection. An otherwise unachievable shared space.