icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column edited and published by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

Chronological Index | Subject Index

Atoms need precision

Why no real change can occur in an aesthetic vagueness of words or meanings

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2014). Atoms need precision. Why no real change can occur in an aesthetic vagueness of words or meanings. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 3.8 (August).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2014). Atoms need precision. Why no real change can occur in an aesthetic vagueness of words or meanings. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 3.8 (August).

I believe that order is better then chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people's feelings by satisfying our egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.
K. Clark, Civilisation, A personal view, 1969 - quoted by the Exhibition Guide "Kenneth Clark. Looking for civilisation", Tate Britain, 20 May - 10 August 2014.

31 August 2014 - To change our mind we have first of all to change language, words, names and bring new concepts out of the magmatic world of indistinct feelings. Fraudsters, scammers and hypnosis experts know that very well and fish into the same magma of your indistinct feelings to try to drive your actions. Clarity and precision of wording is conversely essential to create and manage whatever type of object, action and interaction using digital representations - and that is true for both physical goods and immaterial services.

Atoms as well as medical prescriptions or financial records need precision to be reliable, safe and consistently usable over time.

A recent biographic exhibition - that I have found marvellous - on Kenneth Clark, british historian, curator and broadcaster, encouraged me to reconsider the case of an exhibition I visited in Paris two years ago that has remained unpleasantly hermetic to me in respect of most of its contents for a long while: it was a complex, difficult and nevertheless fascinating and important exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, entitled Multiversités créatives.

Perhaps in no other occasion during the last decade I found myself puzzled with doubts. I did not really understand what the exhibition was all about about at first - apart from the easiest section dedicated to social network analysis and data visualisation applications I was already familiar with. References to innovations that are likely to completely change the world of manufacture, of logistics, of healthcare remained so disturbingly vague that it took me quite a considerable amount of time to eventually make some sense of the visit. In that, I found useful inspiration to rethink the whole Paris experience thanks to the exhibition that Tate Britain has recently dedicated to Kenneth Clark.

Multiversités créatives featured 15 original works or projects, supported by a number of sponsors, commissioned by the french museum to american and european personalities and artists. The aim was to “anticipate the structural and aesthetic changes of the industrial world” (that said using the words of one of the sponsors). Basically, I should have got a glimpse on what is coming up at the core of the next industrial revolution. But as I said that was not the case.

Multiversités créatives was developed and curated within what I understood was meant to be a long term commitment of the Service de Prospective Industrielle at the Centre Pompidou, a specific department the Museum of Modern Art started up in 2010, to identify and bring to the public trends and actors within the domain of the industrial creation.

I found the policy sustaining the department and the whole initiative very appropriate in that I believe we are living times of sudden and deep changes brought into industrial creative processes by technologies, financial pressure and the same logic of advanced capitalism. So that informal learning and science translation should be sustained and encouraged wherever possible. But there was something missing in that exhibition. It seemed the curators pointed towards the blurring boundaries of diverse disciplinary or sectorial domains such as architecture, industrial design, information technology, new media, social innovation in a very chaotic and indistinct manner. Was that justifying the neologism “multiversités”? it did not seem useful to show any peculiarity of the current industrial revolution or to teach anything new about it in my view - after all, Leonardo Da Vinci demonstrated long ago that all the facets of human knowledge and expertise can be easily blended within just one single creative mind.

Common denominator to all the projects featured was the massive use of computational design and data visualization: the artists used large quantities of data manipulated, elaborated and represented through a variety of computing, internet and visual applications referring to completely different fields of human activity. And again, is that spreading of a same code of communication across diverse fields so revolutionary? History of painting says no.

The projects were presented in three very broad classes - these were at least quite easy and immediate, quite traditional to understand: generating, making and representing. I took some notes and I also tried to engage with curators and librarians few weeks later, suggesting some reflections that unfortunately did not find so much attention but for the fact that those notes have been kept so that I am now able to go back into the contents of Multiversités créatives and let you know a bit more of what they were related about - so that you can research more about them and repeat my journey, if you wish.

Inspired by biological or morphogenetic images and processes, the works of the first section (generating) included 18 prototypes of objects designed and realised with new materials by the architect and professor Neri Oxman from the MIT Media Lab. These prototypes had been inspired by Jorge Luis Borges “Imaginary beings” and heavily promoted through hypnotic videos by the same Prof. Oxman. All in all an attempt to drive the users' attention and cognition into a very articulated and dense matter, such as 3D Printing technologies and related data and policies infrastructure, through an emotional and visual pathway that did not work at all with me. As I said, I did not get any understanding of what such 3D world could be and how could come into being.

The section included also references to and displays of futuristic experiments in architecture research in which “traditional building plans and sections are replaced by computer codes” that I confess I hardly understood at all at the time. Two years later, having done huge work on data infrastructures and approached 3D technologies from other point of views, I see Neri Oxman prototypes were quite hermetic because there was no explicit reference to processes familiar to me that I could imagine transformed or revolutionised by that type of innovations. In other terms, there was a sort of missing link between the abstract universe of concepts imagined by the scientist and the actual possibilities envisioned by entrepreneurs, industrial leaders and economists.

Kenneth Clark, wrote in 1949 the following words that sound timeless and priceless and can explain why several innovations remain unfortunately more thought and talked than implemented, precisely because of a lack of translation: "It needs two people to make a picture: one to commission it and the other to carry it out. The artist who has to paint in a vacuum tends to paint either solely for himself and a few friends or for an imaginary, synthetic public". If you substitute the word 'picture' with the word 'scientific progress' you may get a more precise image of what I thought was missing from the curatorial efforts in that part of the exhibition - absolutely stunning by the way in terms of visual impact.

In the second section (making) Multiversités créatives documented the work done in partnership with the Fondation Zinsou as well as projects commissioned to independent artists - like the London based Markus Kayes. Here I was impressed by the unexpectedness of some ideas such those acted by François Brument work that showed the power of laser technology for the production of objects from recycled materials. Who could have said that was possible. But again, at the time, I found even this more practical section of the exhibition quite difficult to think about and to talk about with others beyond their simple, sometimes evocative, sometimes absolutely silent titles and labels. In sum, what was the possible evolution of the discourse of each of these projects all about? I could not really tell. There were some scientific notions conceptualised here and there but still the aesthetic approach to the exposed works did not help me to dig out new meanings and ideas from them. There was a perception of a lack of references and guidance that I could not elaborate further because I simply missed the words for those concepts and I had no time, no particular motivation or interest neither to go further.

Finally, I found the third section (representing) the easiest and in some respects the most enjoyable and spectacular: it showed examples of data applications that were already known and commercialised, although still in their infancy, in the communication, education and new media sectors - such as the work provided by the Médialab of Sciences Po about the potential of digital archives in the History domain, the work of Linkfluence designed by Antonin Rohmer, representing french communities of interest identified and tracked through the world wide web using applications of social networking analysis and data visualization techniques, plus the experiments made by the collective LUSTlab in the field of “internet of things” showing devices autonomously interconnected and triggering entertaining visual transformation of data without almost any human intervention. Since I had studied such technologies and their unfortunate applications in the educational sector since 2002-2003 I did not find any surprise in this part of the exhibition but just a confirmation of trends I had already identified - in some respects disgraceful, as they drive people to play with data without understanding the basics of their statistical background visual manipulation and underlying calculations.

So all in all, it seemed Multiversités créatives trusted too much the power of aesthetic engagement and visual fascination in creating cognitive and reflective reactions, whilst it missed a level of curation useful to actually capture and translate the implied world of scientific and technical concepts hidden within each of the projects showcased. In that, the exhibition applied to complex hi-tech contents a registry, or a repertoire, of ideas very effective in emotionally and and visually engaging with the public but without, I suspect, any effectiveness for learning or educational scopes.

I could have understood a number of new interesting ideas if only they had been simply made explicit, arranged and connected with actual technologies, processes or common experiences. In sum, the key question is: can we curate data and information - especially about disruptive and radical innovations - without giving people a sample of what can be a direction for development? without working out a provisional taxonomy of possibilities of innovation? (I use the word taxonomy here in its very broad and general meaning, even when the word classification could be more appropriate according to professional standards because a classification needs factual or literary warranty whereas a taxonomy or controlled vocabulary has not such requirement and can more easily accommodate imaginative contents).

With its simplified approach to knowledge translation, and the immediate impact of its plain narratives, it is exactly the fast and visual language pioneered by Clark's tv documentaries in the late 1960s that has now evolved into a powerful and nevertheless hermetic glue. Such glue makes everybody able to talk about every complex scientific content with everybody else through photos, videos, installations, theatrical representations but without producing any learning of new content or new meaning at all - but for few polarised and extremely simplified ideas. What in the 1970s was a democratised and highly accessible new channel of communication has become today the true barrier to knowledge translation and acquisition. Television and all its emotionally dense surrogates and interactive appendices - including social media - are unable to explain and translate the complexity of multifaceted and multi-represented knowledge worlds. Masses of people need to come to grips with extraordinary abstracted and complex new notions.

"Through television - Clark wrote in 1970 - we realise that we are all one, all over the world." Unfortunately that turned out to be dramatically true only for an idealised vision of communication and educational processes, reduced to very simple and often polarised debates. That practical realisation and idealised emphasis of "one world" communication is even counterproductive today, freezing people scientific and technical literacies around few emotional and vague clues, easily strumentalised through propaganda. In any field of data, information and knowledge management, from primary school curricula to venture capitalists analysis of 3D printing perspectives, we still have to realise that "one world" does not exist but in our imagination and for the purpose of sharing very simple basic universal notions and advertising concepts. That is a level of scientific and cultural literacy that is not compatible with the civilisation goals of the XXI Century.

From my point of view, even a rough taxonomy of the envisioned possibilities of innovation could help in communicating and translating contents from complex knowledge domains into daily routines and practices. It does not matter if objects, projects or applications of the same technologies are still uncertain or undefined: if we start with the goal of naming everything with precision as much as we can at a certain point in time and in a certain context, even the foggiest concepts acquire clarity and definition. To invent the future, we first have to be able to name it and communicate it with precision, especially if we have to send it to a 3D printer.