Last week a picture of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci sold for $450M. With a single drop of the gavel the painting became the most expensive ever sold. At the same time Facebook and other social media sites are dealing with the ongoing fallout of the Russian influence on the US Presidential election and speculation that social media (read Russians) may also have influenced the outcome of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, by deploying similar tactics.
How is this all interlinked?
The work of Leonardo da Vinci holds the public in its sway. Many of us have heard of the accepted truisms surrounding the Louvre museum: that the vast majority of visitors go, spend less than two minutes in front of the Mona Lisa, maybe cast a quick glance over at the Venus de Milo, then leave. On my first trip to Paris as an 18-year-old, my first time away, flying solo on the continent, I too perpetuated this philistinic approach to cultural tourism. The fame of the Mona Lisa and the cultural calling to witness it in person are major reasons for visiting the City of Love. So, it proved for me. (Luckily, I learnt my lesson by the time I got to Madrid and the Prado.)
In addition to the Mona Lisa, we have Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man. This is one of the key crossover images of the last millennium. I have seen this picture, with those perfectly proportioned out stretched arms, used to illustrate medicine, current affairs, science in general and the arts in particular. An image that without doubt captures the lasting spirit of the Renaissance Man. A true polymath, which Leonardo definitely was. In fact, most of the great contributors of the period, the other great artists, thinkers, writers, scientists and philosophers, likely practiced more than one of those disciplines. The Renaissance was not specialist.
Which brings me to STEM. Leonardo the polymath had all of the skills and attributes those initials imbue, but the one we remember him most for, the one we now seem to value most, is missing. If we look at Leonardo we see: Science, check. Technology, definitely. Engineering, obviously. Math? Well you couldn’t do the other things without a good grounding in the universal language… Arts? The one area he is now most famous for, art, is nowhere to be seen.
Science changes as evidence proves or disproves. Technology and engineering can be superseded. Math, like art, is universal. Art is subject to reevaluation and the vagaries of fashion, sure, but, like math, it is always required, always needed, always done. It is art that is missing from the STEM acronym. We need to add it, we need STE(A)M. That lack of art and humanity in the cold empiricism of STEM, that lack of Renaissance thinking, well, as another great Renaissance genius wrote: “there’s the rub”.
There is a background radiation about education policy that seeps into our collective consciousness:
I have worked in the technology space for 25 years and I do believe STEM is important, but I do not believe it is the be all and end all. I would argue that the lack of arts in STEM is one of the key reasons Facebook and Twitter algorithms will allow Russian bots to tell lies merrily across our digital playing fields, undermining democracy, but will remove the picture of a breastfeeding mom or a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph in seconds. In the race to make money, we have established a lack of care and discernment. A lack of care for the societal mores on which our democracies are based and in which they can flourish. A lack of care and attention in how the algorithms function when disseminating and curating information and news. Targeting information is the business of news, and that function in social media (despite protestations to the contrary) is exactly why the advertising space is so valuable on those sites.
The developers and executives, wrapped in the exclusivity and specialisms of the scientific age, seem oblivious to the wider impact their creations can have for harm. Something a little exposure to art, humanities or philosophy in school may have helped alleviate. Too many of the IT folks I interact with want to make technology that is super, super cool, world changing even, without a full understanding of what that cool thing will do to the people it will impact, including potentially themselves, or whether the world will be changed for better or worse. As with the news and information, context is all.
Arts and humanities bring context and discernment and much more to the very core of business practices. Art roots us in humanity. Art is a series of advances and wonders that stretch back to the first time we tried, as a species, to bring understanding and meaning to our world. We gathered in the safety of fire light and drew on the walls of our caves. In those original safe spaces we created wonderful paintings for our amusement, or to convey news or simply for joy. We drew to connect with each other. Pictograms formed the first writing, our very language is art.
Investing in arts and humanities in education and including these disciplines in STEM to create STEAM, will bring a level of creativity and discernment I see missing in many of today’s IT graduates and practitioners, where many lack the soft-skills to speak ‘human’. The inclusion of arts will encourage greater human connection, and a greater understanding of the mores and culture of our collective society.
Eventually, the machines will code their own programs without our input, and they will likely base that code on the society they have been exposed to as “true”, in true machine learning style. A little art enabled discernment, a little humanity, would be a welcome intervention. An intervention that demands and could then lead, to one of the greatest gifts bestowed on us by the artists of the Renaissance: perspective.