Aesthetically Scientific

Back in January, NPR’s Science Friday did a story about Steve Erenberg, a man who collects old scientific equipment. To go along with the radio interview, in wonderfully multimodal experience, Luke Groskin, the story producer, created a video interview/tour of Steve’s store.

Something that sometimes gets lost when confronted by technology is the purely aesthetic value of that technology, and what those aesthetics are saying.  One of my favorite lines from the video with Steve is about the importannce of aesthetics.

Quack devices are “designed to be better looking than their purpose…The more important it looked, the better people thought it worked, and the more money the doctor would get.”

Aesthetics matter.  Are you going to be comfortable jumping into an MRI machine with rust?  How about one with teeth?  Probably not, right?  Part of the job of technology is to convince people to use it, and we use technology that looks, feels, sounds usable.  If no care were given to aesthetics, then how many inventions would come to mass market?  The aesthetics of our technology, ie not having MRI machines with teeth, play an important rhetorical role in establishing ethos for the equipment itself.  Such and such looks good, looks modern, looks sleek, and therefore must perform its function remarkably well.

Another connection that I really enjoyed was made by Luke Groskin, the producer.  He made the comment in a later interview with Ira Glass that:

“You can see the art movement at which they [the science pieces] were created – the art movements during which they were created in the actual pieces.  So you can see expressionism in these dentistry practice anatomical models…You can see Victorial clawed tables. You can see more modern tin and aluminum, very sleek, very very simplistic designs. “

In other words, the aesthetics of science and technology are a product of the culture in which  they exist.  Some of these devices in the video might look like torture devices to us now, because that’s what our cultural language has decreed – torture devices are old and antiquated, not a product of our modern society, and many of the slasher films that we watch are based on technology of the past.  They look terrifying to us because of our cultural climate, but we can’t every forget that our things only look the way that they do because of our cultural expectations.  We all only need to look at yearbook photos to see how quickly cultural expectations are.  So we need to perhaps be aware that Now is not forever, and that modern gives way to antiquated very quickly. What will our great great grandchildren think of the absurdly clunky and spacious laptop computer that I am typing this article on?  As Steve Erenberg Summarized quite nicely:

“That’s what science is.  We always think state of the art and we’re ahead of our time and it’ll never get anymore modern than that, but it’s always changing.”

Science is not static, but is perpetually changing, as is every other facet of our culture.  And that change is not a bad, or scary thing.  That change is called progress, and is the reason that the “quack devices” as Erenberg calls them are not still in use.  Also, let’s remember that “Quack devices” might not necessarily be correct – just because something didn’t work doesn’t mean that it wasn’t valuable.  After all, the contribution of failure to scientific progress is extremely important.  Science changes, culture changes, and hopefully, those changes are for the better.

2 thoughts on “Aesthetically Scientific”

  1. Jean – Very cool video and excellent commentary. I’ve only consciously considered the connection between aesthetics and tech at two other points in my life: once when deciding between a PC and MacBook laptop (Apple won the day in no small part because of its sleeker features) and once when reading an article that compares the aesthetics of Star Wars to the aesthetics of Star Trek (yes, I know that’s only fictional tech, but still). Your post encouraged me to consider the connection more often.

    Even thinking about it now, I am wondering (hopefully without offending anyone) about how shifting gender representation in the sciences might affect the aesthetics of tech. Does current tech exhibit a masculine aesthetic bias? Is this due to consumer preferences or designer preferences?

    Well, you’ve got me thinking. Good stuff.

    1. Yeah, the Mac/PC aesthetic is a major one in the tech space. It’s funny, various PC companies have started moving toward the Mac design experience ever so slightly – I have an HP laptop, but most people assume by looking at it that it’s a Mac. So there’s a trendsetting effect going on in the computer space, where everyone tries to catch up to the hot thing. It’s interesting to look back at the history of the Microsoft and Apple operating systems – they started out very similar, and then had a major divergence, and are now starting to come closer together – with Windows gravitating more toward Mac, but not entirely.

      And absolutely, the differences between Star Trek and Star Wars are fascinating – both scientifically, and aesthetically. The underlying assumptions of their tech say a lot about their view of the world, and what they’re trying to accomplish. I’ll probably be writing about that in particular in a few posts here.

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