Will Burtin Speech

Complete text of an address by Will Burtin titled "Design Responsibility in the Age of Science"

The word "scientist" was coined first by Whewell around 1840, to identify a small number of professional people who were investigating the properties of nature. Prior to that time an Aristotle, a Kepler, a Copernicus, a Newton, were called philosophers, wise men or thinkers. At one stage of human development it was architecture, at another poetry, at still another sculpture and calligraphy, and then painting, and music, that appear as the outstanding creative phenomena of an era - breakthroughs toward added dimensions of esthetic consciousness and of mass experience. The ascendency of science has gathered momentum since the renaissance. It is a significant fact that the entire structure of contemporary thought and reality has been permeated by science, layer by layer. Imagination, creative courage, beauty, systemology and utility are qualities of science which influence already the direction of human development to an extent that is of basic concern to many and frightening to others, that is the hope of millions of ill and of billions of poor people around the world. There is hardly one area of human activity in which science is not involved now, and often in revolutionizing ways, including the arts. Yet, this is only the beginning of a new era, of transition from a pre-scientific to a scientific culture. This transition is marked by violent struggles especially in areas where logic of scientific reasoning runs counter to the conveniences of established privileges or questions the continued validity of earlier models of reality. It is essential, especially for creative people, to be aware of the manifestations of transition, evaluate their meanings and learn to explore the comprehensive character and grandeur of the scientific culture toward which we are moving. Such a study may prevent errors that develop from contradictory influences around us and thus may result in a higher creative efficiency. One of the consequences of science - technology - was initially concerned only with the mechanization of manufacturing processes. Due to its commercial utilitarian, technology has resulted not only in spectacular productive achievements, comforts and a multitude of devices, but also in an amazing extension of human power and a range of human senses. However, another aspect of technology, mass production, is forcing a world-wide revision of our economic and distribution systems as well as the development of totally new concepts of machine design and application. Estimates of effects of the resulting re-arrangements of human living patterns fill people with apprehension, a sense of in-security and distrust of progress. These feelings express themselves in flights from reality such as reactionary racism and radical conservative political parties, and they stem essentially from the widespread ignorance about the nature of science and of mistaking technology for science. It must become common knowledge that the challenge of mass production can be turned into beneficial progress only if it is met on the basis of a scientific attitude in society. If this factor is not recognized, the mere tool of science, technology , will overwhelm both - science and the human environment, as Siegfried Gideon proves convincingly by the massive evidences in his book "Mechanization Takes Command". Many have become accustomed to the convenience of the employment of technology to an extent that they depend and believe only what the devices "see" or "react to", rather than what the human mind can think out or project creatively. The consequence of such a reliance on machinery is that we know more and more about less and less. Many of our technicians have become so efficiently comfortable in the specialized employment of special devices that they lost contact with basic realities and substituted them for a mythical romanticism which - if thought through - accepts the superiority of machine over man on one hand, and assumes that we know much more than we actually do on the other. These contradictory fallacies are continuously evidenced in our mass communications, our advertising and perpetuated in many contemporary educational institutions. The cultural manifestations of transition reflect similar difficulties in terms of conceptual definitions and confusions arising from the employment of technology by commerce. There is not only an inflation of gadgets and devices that are designed superficially and produced for quick profit and obsolescence, but there is also a widespread disintegration of moral, intellectual taste standards that has become typical for its uglification and anti-humanization of our environment. The rapidity by which the mechanization of communications and production replaces and destroys cultural values that need preservation for future generations is unequaled in history. It asks for a most intense effort by all creative-sectors of society because it endangers now the very foundations on which future progress can be built. There is irony in this relatively recent phenomenon. At a period in history when it becomes possible for the first time to gear production to levels at which a decent life can be assured to anyone on earth, as we emerge from the narrow limits of geography, language boundaries, ignorance of natural processes, food scarcity and the wastefulness of diseases, we permit the junk pile to symbolizel planless proliferation. The unwillingness - and possibly unpreparedness - of contemporary society to accept responsibility for our actions and their effects makes us a willing victim of a specialization that "protects" us from reality. Can the pursuit of beauty and the human drive toward worthwhileness of life and time be reconciled with this defeatist attitude? It is a depressing thought that we should be satisfied with a proposition that the main purpose of science must be the invention of bigger bulldozers or of more efficient shoeshine gadgets or of more powerful means of thrusting weights into space. Nor is it reasonable to propose that the overriding occupation of art is enhancement of the desirability to possess such gadgets. There is no evidence in our mutual past that supports such assumptions. On the contrary: From the first stirring recognition of the world around us into the remotest texture of our dreams we are aware of the need for understanding and driven by a sense of purpose that finds its finest expressions in our questioning and measuring the heavens above us, in the exploration of our world and of ourselves, and in the arts and sciences by which we define human values and human aims. We conceive of life as continuous inquiry into the nature and meaning of creation. If we keep in mind that we are living on a planet which is turning and hurling through vast space and inconceivable time dimensions - turning and hurling with all our activities, traditions, wars, constructions, paintings and television programs and printing presses - we are gaining a perspective of the human position, we should take a view of the earth as our vehicle and resource, as our environment and fortune, of which we are part and whose destiny is ours. We do not know whether or to what extent other species in other galaxies are conscious of such a perspective, but recognition of it makes us realize the potential power of human faculties, and of our creative capability to plan a human environment of dignity and of the beauty that reflect themselves in every thought communicated and every product designed. It is with this perspective of immense opportunity and immense responsibility that we can approach the utilization of the material resources of our planet and of the creative potentiality of our natural resources of creativity, by which we can shape our lives so that they become purposeful works of art and beauty rather than unplanned transitory existences, deaf to reason, filled with boredom, driven by greed and avarice. Through the imagination of the wise men, the philosophers, the artists and the scientists, of the past and recent time this perspective has been gradually solidified with data, thoughts, the many works of intellect and art. Through their efforts and perhaps for the first time in human history can we conceive of a model of reality according to which we used the energy of our planet and the human existence - both, in physical and intellectual ways. Judging by this model, which also symbolizes the change from the pre-scientific era to a science culture, it appears that the price which we must be prepared to pay for progress is responsibility - for ourselves, for what we do why we do it, how we do it - and for others around us. Please remember: we all live in one world that keeps shrinking the more we know about it and growing the more we realize our creative potential. Both aspects have become clear and real to us through the imagination of artists and scientists. Human imagination is limited by what we can have an image or "model" of. Such models are not necessarily related or limited to representational images in our minds. In communicating a thought we find that we have to project almost continuously images or image-related verbal symbols in order to achieve a situation in which a listener or an audience "sees" - that is, remembers - a semblance of what we project. Thereby the meaning of what we wish to communicate can be understood. Recent and current experiments in the visual arts resulted in important extensions of the range and interpretive quality of art to depict even dynamic processes on a stationary plane. The current flowering of the film indicates that artists have developed increasing familiarity with and control over the abstract planning aspects which an intimate correlation of meanings of moving and non-moving images, color, scale, sound and voice demand. To this one must add the understanding of technical devices and the chemistry of light. This condensation of abstract planning into the concrete imagery of projected models will have far-reaching consequences for education and for the further exploration of what we can think out, explore and explain. It is conceivable that the values of all the art forms of all ages and from the viewpoint of their being the "raw material" of a world concept of human communication in the science culture. It may well be that the creative energies flowing from and released by this changed outlook will produce a flowering of art and a growth of knowledge the like of which has never existed before. Scientific thought made technology possible, which brought mass production, that resulted in the increased manufacture of objects at decreasing unit cost. There is a tendency to attach a tradition-conditioned significance to mass-produced objects which originates from value judgements based on the single, hand-made, object. The abstract value, or quality, of such a single object - be it a vase or a painting or calligraphy - did develop from the singular circumstances of its manufacturer. Guided by physical contacts and an intimacy with functions, with awareness of the character of materials and with tools that were extensions of hands and therefore controlled by the nervous system, it was possible to create objects in which every nuance of form, texture or color could be the result of a lifetime of pondering, of acquired skill or of a more or less planned accident. This wide creative range accounts for the amazing total wealth of human culture. The economic value attached to these individually-made and therefore rare objects made their possession not only desirable socially but then assured also a relatively high social standing of the artisan right up to recent times. The introduction and increasing application of machinery changed these relationships, first in subtle and finally in drastic ways. At first machines were made to imitate the works of human hands. Then, with the introduction of steam and - later on - electricity, machines could make quantities of objects which resulted in their assuming and determining economic values of a totally different range. Gradually, the role of the artisan was reduced to the making of samples for the machine which it could stamp our or press easily and fast.

Thus, human creative faculties started to serve the machines to make them reproduce mechanically. Increasing machine speeds demanded new synthetic materials, which were supplied by equally increased chemical proficiency, for which designers instead of artisans were needed who could plan an object. Such planning consisted of "negotiated" compromises between an object's social value, technical functions, material characteristics, production mechanics, its cost and profit margin. Although we are of value as a "consumer", the human judgment in the development of objects for human use has been reduced increasingly by statistical procedures, computer applications and automated production. This drift toward a de-humanized self-centered, self-adjusting system of manufacturing needs urgently analysis in order to establish controls over its direction and production. It is feasible that such a control may result from the design of machines rather than the design of products, which is the task on which artists and scientists must work together. This task, in turn, should be part of a larger design objective: The organization of a human life destined to serve no longer production requirements of society to the extent as practiced now but freed for the creative exploration of their capabilities, for the enjoyment of being and the creation of the scientific culture.The total consequences of this shift will result in new kinds of control - through design - in the origination of steadily changing objects: From world - wide television programs to TV sets, from printed and projected imagery to refinements of technology affecting health, food leisure and education. This challenge demands creativity on a scale that ranges all the way - from the emotional interpretation of phenomena through the painter's mind and tools to the exploration of data through computers, from the electron microscope to the poem, from mathematics to the rebuilding of our cities, the shaping of our landscapes and the development of new means of teaching and remembering. As we recognize the transitional characteristics of the present it appears that design can be singularly valuable in setting the pace at which society can move toward a scientific culture. To this observer it seems that in recent years especially two areas, among many more, have emerged which should be singled out and evaluated briefly here. One deals with the area of social criticism, the other with necessary improvements in education. We need a stronger critical art emphasis on the contradictory character of many facets of our present civilization, through the tools of humor and satire. An example for the effectiveness of satire in highlighting social deficiencies can be seen in the work of a Daumier, a George Gross, a Ronald Searle, a John Heartfield, in the early production of Saul Steinberg and the continuous drama of Ben Shahn's depictions. Inspired by the earlier thrust of Dadaism, the savage ridicule by Pop Art - of an environment crowded with cereal, soap and soft drink packages and posters, inane cartoon strips, meaningless banners and the pretentious hallowness of public monuments and a sales - oriented gadget production - meets an important need for satire. By pretending that such manifestations of our visual environment are art, their ugliness is held up to ridicule. One thinks in this connection also of the cleansing role which Dr. Pazaurek's "Kitsch" Museum played in the Germany of the twenties. How much more could motion pictures and television contribute had they followed the satirical direction and artistry of a Chaplin, a Rene Clair of a W.C. Fields, instead of being pre-occupied with sex and crime as suitable subjects for uncritical entertainment, on wider and wider screens and in glowing colors! The ability of creative people to condense complex ideas into drastically simple visual form must be cultivated further especially in this area of humor and satire, so that it becomes a consciously employed tool of analysis and improvement. In the potential of art for education lays its historic value relative to science and the prospective quality of human environment. For some time already, this function has presented a special challenge to this observer, stemming in part from demands coming from scientists and partly because of the character of science itself, its achievements and effects. Assisted by urgent needs for a better understanding of complex problems in medical science and related researches, and supported by a progressive manufacturer, it became possible to select themes and to design educational models of some of the more significant structures and processes of life that had been revealed by science in recent years. The primary value of such models - as well as of graphic design work preceding and following them - is that they reduce the time necessary for the study and understanding of a science problem. The secoundary value is not less important than the first. It lays in the opportunity to provide a physical and optical orientation that facilitates a better grasp of the inter-relatedness of all the parts that make a basic cell - for example - so important for the various chemical functions on which life and health are based. Once this overall grasp has been achieved, a student or doctor can remember the character of the whole structure in such a way that deviations from the normal - associated with disease - or the specialization of cells - for muscles, nerves, organs, skin, etc. - are understood. On this basis, the outcome of further specialized professional study of details which come to scientists in the often confusingly specialized forms of charts, electron micrographs, direct microscopic observations, literature, x-ray diffraction photos or genetic or chemical tables, is greatly enhanced and results in increasing precision, and in real knowledge. The design challenge of such models called for a comprehensive approach. The design objective was the organization of a visual demonstration in which visual forms, materials, colors, space, motion and sound were related to human size and human capacity to remember. Although the objective of each model was firmly limited to its most essential points, it developed almost naturally that these points related to aspects of other science problems as well. Consequently, the construction of one model led quickly to others of equal visual and memory powers. One physicist, after wandering through the structure of a basic cell, stated that "it reduces six months of detailed study to six minutes of visual and physical exercise". It made him and his students again curious to study the original cell under the microscope again, but this time on the basis of a more dynamic understanding of the total, generalized image. The recording of an experience by the human brain was the subject of another three-dimensional model. In this case it was the depiction of a process, rather than of an organic structure, which had to be demonstrated. This brain model was, therefore, not built to resemble the anatomy of the brain but to show how coded impulses traveled from via the pathways of the nervous system from station to station. For a theme, the evolution from the instant when the eye sees a singer and the ear hears her voice to the recognition by the brain of the singer and her song, were used. We restricted the model to this visual-auditory theme, because we felt that the activity of the brain deals with visual-auditory communications primarily and that the other senses - of smell, touch and taste - although very important have a secoundary and mainly supportive role. The introduction of the functional brain model has met with great success by scientists and the public. The simultaneous duplication of experience and reaction patterns in the two halves of the brain brought a rhythm in the evolving light patterns that helped to appreciate the process in a few minutes of observation, whereas it took by any other medium of demonsration weeks of study to achieve this. (Vision) impulses were red, and (hearing) impulses were green lights. Of the cell and the brain models, motion pictures were made which are currently shown in universities, schools and museums throughout the world. Both "appeared" also on television programs in England, Italy and the United States, as well as in magazines and medical textbooks. The successful performance of these visual models led to others. One model, depicting the chemistry of the metabolic process in the human body, is being shown presently in the United States. Additional models are in various stages of planning and construction. One deals with the functioning and structure of muscles another with the structure and activity of a typical virus and a third with the process of inflammation. Each demonstration appears to develop its own functional form, which is determined on the basis of the need for greatest visual clarity, scientific accuracy and the easy memorizing of significant stages or important features. Development of these models was possible only through the sympathetic cooperation of many scientists, in the various disciplines involved, and through the enthusiasm of my staff. All of them recognized that design work of this kind is necessary to reduce the amount of study time needed to arrive at intelligent and useful conclusions, which is important in current research and educational work. The appearance of these models has been interpreted in a number of ways. Some observers consider them works of artistic interpretation, while others stress their value to science. At a time in human history when the acquisition of knowledge is - more that ever - made difficult by the still increasing specialization in all sectors of human work and study, it seems that designers should make special efforts to employ their skills toward the creation of a broader and helpful understanding and of an appreciation of the joy and beauty of knowledge. Among others, this social function seems to be a special responsibility of design and designer. It is conceivable that in a society, not too distant, a strong attention of artist and scientists could be centered on the development of many types of models of processes, ideas and social problems, that draw abstract or verbal - associative concepts into the fields of stronger sensorial concreteness. Some of these models could be built and rebuilt continuously for steady revisions in line with a steady advancement of knowledge. Others should be developed to reflect educational stages and still others to demonstrate unsolved or only partially solved problems. It is, for example, a challenging problem to attempt the creation of a concrete model of Einstein's idea of relativity. A scientific and esthetic concept of enormous significance, this ideas makes us estimate nature, probability variables and changing values of relational factors, where we before were inchoate and unable to "imagine". A demonstrational model, floating in space could be designed which could have in-built phases of steady re-arrangements of all parts. Many as yet unexplained problems await creativity to include them into a steadily growing vista of a more intimate public awareness of the stuff and nature, reality is made out of. The new technologies will be harnessed to become servants of steady creation. Whether it is the three-dimensional model depicting processes or structures, whether a film of the writing of a better textbook, whether the emotional short cut of the painter's work or a poem, it is creativity that can bring unity in the effort of man of science and art to make an environment worthy of our steady growth toward a planned destiny. Recognition and acceptance of the social responsibility of design may make it one of the most valuable creative tools for the development of the first great adventure of all humans, the scientific culture.