DAY 20 /// RESPONDING TO MOHAMMAD SALEMY — ART AFTER THE MACHINES, by ADAM KLEINMAN
Captain Picard by Steven White
Q: What does Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard tell us about the future?
A: Even though we’ll soon travel faster than the speed of light, we still won’t know how to cure baldness!
Although this fictive trade off doesn’t sound so bad, I think Star Trek is a bit too utopian in its outlook.
According to the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery, $2bn is spent per year on hair loss science. There’s no reporting on warp drive funding, so to set a scale on the study of baldness, let’s compare it to other research in the medical field…
Malaria research, for example, only clocks in to about $547m per annum according to the WHO, while about $1bn is spent on searching for a cure for AIDS/HIV. For a capitalist, this makes both sense and cents; there are far more cases of baldness, and thus, it provides a bigger industry and justifies the expenditure. But, there is another issue here: Malaria and AIDS/HIV kill, while baldness doesn’t. Although it might be possible to prove that deaths caused by the aforementioned diseases detract from the labor force, and thus effect the economy negatively, I don’t need to rely on scientific ‘proofs’ to justify my malcontent with the oversized baldness industry.
Imagine you’re watching a film. In it a man cries as he tries to cover his head with a comb over that just doesn’t fool anyone. Cross cut: another person cries, a death letter can be seen in her hands. You might assume that the first man was sick and that the stories are somehow related, but you’re probably not thinking about the man’s lost vanity, I hope.
As a journalist I can make a truth claim, for example, that Greece is reeling from the effects of austerity. Likewise, a string of stats from the IMF compared to national unemployment and foreclosure rates, and so forth, could support that claim. While this furnishes numerical benchmarks, it lends little to the reader’s imagination—except maybe when a hypothetical model is presented to project a totally fictional and over determined goal. On the other hand, a rich narrative account of what it is to live under such conditions, say a story of a depressed young mother who must turn to prostitution so as to feed herself or her child, does something else. While the quantitative report presents facts, or what could be called knowledge that such and such exists (this is similar to your idea), the lived account is not only an example of that which is, it is also a knowledge of what something is like, interpersonally (which is not the same as your idea of a knowledge of ‘how to do something’, which in this case, would be: how to sell yourself to feed your kid). Both are descriptions, yet the second presents a concrete reality through perception; it is not just a proposition. By definition such a narrative is vicarious; its power lies in the flavor of its portrayal, not in how well it tells someone how to model the situation—Les Miserables would be a novel along the above plot line for those keeping score.
If I recall correctly, Machiavelli thought that the centaur presented the truest image of how people are: creatures which have the capacity to be rational, but are not totally rational by definition—rationality being signified of course by the human-like top half of the mythical beast, while the opposite force, irrationality, is represented by the horse-like bottom half. While my above musings might sound quaint, understand that art too only has a capacity for compassion, or empathy, and likewise, it only has a capacity to act as a manual, or a record, to give guidance and so on. This doesn’t mean that art is or will ever provide what it is called upon to do exactly…that’s something called an intentional fallacy. While this lack of control might make some people nervous, it also has turned others into censors or academics replete with codified rulebooks and tomes. Let’s not go there, please.
At present, the only fear computing devices present to me though is not that they are mind-numbingly complex, it is that no matter how complex they seem, each runs by a strict textualism predicated on a very close reading of code and metrics. The real quandary isn’t then what should art and science learn from each other vis-à-vis computing, the question is: are our interlinked machines turning more and more into an association of Prousts and Hugos, or into an army of literal minded Antonin Scalias?
Since I’ve probably exceeded the length of a typical response I just want to ask: how can procedure be prevented from superseding substance in all forms, and moreover, how to stop quantification from being the lone arbiter of quality? I might end up being a Cassandra, but I don’t think creating more commands for what is now a rule following machine is the answer in itself.
Adam Kleinman is a writer and curator. He was dOCUMENTA (13) Agent for Public Programming.