Why I believe science and technology should have no borders

December 7, 2001

The 20th century was the century of scientific inquiry and technological innovation. It filled our lives with new gadgets and new understanding. More profoundly, science and technology have informed basic concepts about the origins of the universe, the nature of life, time, space and humanity.

Many believe further development should be left to specialists, that their ideas and processes are alien to the main cultural flow, different from ideas in literature, politics or philosophy. But research is so important in its implications for life and thought that it cannot be left to scientists alone. Science and technology must enter into the heart of general discourse and understanding.

Science and technology research agendas can determine the flow of the future. Researchers working on ideas such as making objects intelligent and aware of their surroundings are working on more than products. They are transforming the primordial relationship between humans and inanimate objects. The way that research unfolds is a crucial part of our cultural heritage.

Moreover, sociologists and historians of science note that the fate of research ideas is not decided only by a disinterested assessment of their strength. Academic disciplines patrol their borders and this affects researchers' career paths and their ability to be published or gain funding. Mavericks are disciplined for transgressing the limits.

The world of technological innovation is similarly constrained. I have seen marvellous research ideas abandoned because marketing departments have decided that not enough money could be made from them. I have seen entire research and development departments wiped out by corporate politics.

As a culture, we cannot afford to lose these ideas and bursts of imagination. We should be wary of inquiries too easily abandoned. The participation of individuals coming from the diversity of disciplines outside the sciences could help to ensure that the widest range of ideas is pursued.

Some may suggest that there already is wide participation, for example, through academic critiques of research. But I mean something more fundamental - practitioners from many fields participating in inquiries, determining their own research goals and undertaking their own studies.

There are signs that this is beginning to happen. The arts, once at the cutting edge of culture, temporarily lost their way when science and technology took over. But now they are reclaiming that sentinel role. Artists around the world are establishing research agendas and labs. They are furthering scientific knowledge and creating technological innovations as they pursue non-utilitarian research as personal expression, as social commentary and out of basic curiosity. Examples include stem-cell sculptures, genetically engineered bacteria with texts embedded, toxin-extracting plants for public gardens, broadcasts from inside the stomach, brain wave-controlled music, artificial life forms breeding and evolving on the internet, movies that can read the viewer's position, gesture, facial identity and so on.

There are challenges to this kind of research. Many in the sciences and engineering may doubt that "dabbling" outsiders have much to contribute. Those from other fields will need to master new skills. All will need to learn how to value what other disciplines can offer. But the rewards will be great. Our culture could be enriched by the opening of new lines of inquiry, and researchers could be rewarded by a new kind of public support and understanding that would replace mystification, hostility and distrust.

Stephen Wilson
Art department
San Francisco State University

Stephen Wilson is author of Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science and Technology , published this week by MIT Press, £34.50. For more information: http://userwww.sfsu.edu/swilson/ book/infoartsbook.html

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