jun 022013

de kaftDit is de tweede aflevering van een serie over gebrekkige kwaliteit in de digitale wereld. Deze keer citeren we met instemming een over elke verdenking van zweverigheid verheven keiharde informaticus: David Gelernter.

Hier gaat om een in de IT onderschat begrip uit het begripssysteem van de architectuur voor de digitale wereld zo als uitgelegd in het gelijknamige boek van Hanno Wupper: Schoonheid. Gelernter wijdt een heel boek eraan: Machine Beauty: Elegance in the heart of technology (New York 1997/1998). Het is nog steeds verkrijgbaar, nog steeds actueel en niet duur.

Het op één na laatste hoofdstuk gaat over “Computer Ugliness”. In het laatste hoofdstuk, “Unseen Beauty”, trekt Gelernter de conclusie. Het hoofdstuk begint als volgt:

How do the pieces add up? Great technology is beautiful tech-
nology. If we care about technology excellence, we are foolish
not to train our young scientists and engineers in aesthetics, el-
egance, and beauty. The idea of such a thing happening is so
far-fetched it’s funny–but, yes, good technology is terribly
important to our modern economy and living standards and
comfort levels, the “software crisis” is real, we do get from our
fancy computers a tiny fraction of the value they are capable of
delivering: we are a nation of Ferrari drivers tooling around
with kinked fuel lines at fifteen miles per hour. We ought to
start teaching Velazquez, Degas, and Matisse to young tech-
nologists right now on an emergency basis. Every technologist
ought to study drawing, design, and art history. Ugly soft-
ware—hence weak, late, broken, or obnoxious software—
would still get built even if we did. Art education is no magic
wand. But I can guarantee that such a course of action would
make things better: our technology would improve, our tech-
nologists would improve, and we would never regret it.

(Of course, art history in the colleges nowadays often
seems like mud wrestling, as posturing professors who care
not at all about truth and beauty and a lot about politics, ide-
ology, and social agendas drag art down to their level, and
the whole field sinks slowly into the slime: you can only
shake your head and wonder. It’s easy to forget that every se-
rious art history department in the country still harbors a few
professors who love art; those people could do as much as
anyone to pull us out of our software crisis.)

By and large, we go about computer science education in
the wrong way, not surprising, given that the academic field
was dreamed up during the 1960s and early ’70s under radi-
cally different circumstances from the ones that hold today.
We ought to teach basic programming in studios: students
ought to build the same simple programs repeatedly until
each one is not merely correct and efficient but elegant.
Passing students on the basis of mere technical adequacy
yields badly trained programmers and a software crisis; we’d
have a piano crisis, too, if music students moved from one
finger exercise to the next the instant they succeeded in hit-
ting the right notes. Advanced students ought to present
their software projects as architects-in-training do, to junes
capable of aesthetic judgments. The projects we assign ought
to be based (again, as in architecture school) on real projects
in the real world.

Some people are born with and some without an acute
sense of beauty, but anyone’s beauty sense can be improved
by training. The best training is the study of an—art being
the freest pursuit of truth and beauty for their own sakes that
humans are capable of. Art education is crucial to the na-
tion’s technological and scientific well-being. Not because
ignorance of Velazquez (say) makes a person incapable of do-
ing physics; because studying Velizquez sharpens the sense
of beauty, which in turn helps guide physicists toward the
truth. Art study to a scientist or engineer is like jogging
to a boxer. It is no replacement for mathematics or assiduous
punching-bag smashing, but it develops a faculty that is cru-
cial to success.

The closeness of art and science sheds light on today’s art
education also. Nowadays the prestigious art schools spurn
technique and see it as their mission to put students in touch
with their feelings—equivalent to training chemists not by
teaching them chemistry but by sending them straight into
the lab to have fun. Fooling around happens to be essential
in learning science or art. But to teach it instead of technique
is just as disgraceful and stupid in art school as it would be in
science education and is yet another sign of our refusal to
take art seriously, another breach of faith with our students,
whom we betray in a million ways daily.

It is a tragedy that science and technology’s overwhelming
success has convinced many people—some of whom will
even admit it—that art is an anachronism, that science and
technology are the only intellectual attainments that count.
We are up in arms about the pathetic state of math and sci-
ence education in our schools, and are right to be; that the
average American schoolchild emerges from high school and
(in due course) college knowing nothing about an doesn’t
bother us. But technology’s growing centrality throughout
economic and intellectual life makes it more and not less im-
portant that students study art.

Of course, you cannot learn computer science for real, can-
not aspire to do research, unless you have mastered a fair
amount of math and computation theory. Professional pro-
grammers need some math, too, so they can analyze the per-
formance of their programs, and as a general guide to straight
thinking. My computer-sciencc-education-of-the-future of-
fers mathematics and computation theory, of course, just as
the Bauhaus offered metalworking and wood shop.

En onmiddellijk daarna laat Gelernter de bom barsten en rekent af met het huidige universitaire stelsel van opleidingen:

Computer science training is in fact merely one element of my brand-
new three-part university of die future. The “Aesthetics
School” teaches computation and mathematics, physics and
engineering, design, art, architecture, and music. The “Liter-
ature School” centers on good writing and deep reading and
teaches history, philosophy, religion, psychology, law, and
foreign languages, treating each as a branch of literature. The
Biology and Medicine School takes up the slack. And by all
means help yourself to an Economics and Business School,
too, if you like.

Hanno Wupper

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