season 2 episode 7 – how software engineers us | Ben Grosser
In this episode, we talk to Ben Grosser, an artist who is focused on the cultural, social, and political effects of software. We talk about why numbers are so important on social media, making music with computers, and how to add humans to the equation when creating software.
Resources and links
Artworks and other topics mentioned during the podcast can be seen in the following links:
The transcript was produced by an AI, mistakes might appear.
[00:00:00] Nir Hindi: Good morning, Ben. good. Very night in your place. What is the time now because I know that you have your own way of doing it?
Ben Grosser: That’s right. Yeah. Here it is a 1:00 AM so good morning to you and through the evening. The good late thing for me.
Nir Hindi: Yeah.
So, it is already, you can understand how I appreciate Ben’s effort because all our previous compensation was at 1:00 AM in his time.
So, there is a lot of effort already in the preparation for this. Ben welcome.
Ben Grosser: Yeah. Happy to be here. Thanks for reaching out.
Nir Hindi: on humble opinion. You are a very, very interesting artist in the work that you are doing. And I am positive that by the end of this podcast, a lot of our listeners are going to be super excited.
Before we dive deep into some of the work that you have been doing. Can you introduce yourself maybe shortly?
Ben Grosser: Yeah, sure. I am an artist and a professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana champagne in the United States. Um, and as an artist and as a professor, I focus on the cultural, [00:01:00] social and political effects of software.
Thinking about how, the way a piece of software is designed, leads us to act and interact in certain kinds of ways. And so that is the subject of my work as an artist. It is also my subject, uh, when I do write and speaking and those kinds of activities as well.
Nir Hindi: I am very much interested in how you got to work with technology because your medium is technology.
Normally, when you talk about art, people immediately think about painting and colors and sculpture and maybe music, but your medium is technology. What led you to work with technology?
Ben Grosser: You know, I got my start as an undergraduate that even before an undergraduate. My interest was music. I was a trumpet player in high school and in college, I really got into music composition and computer music became my obsession.
And so that is where I really started to get interested in the ways that writing code could have interesting effects aesthetically, um, in that case writing code to generate sound [00:02:00] and writing code to help with the composition process. And I had some great teachers along those lines too, as an undergraduate.
So that was probably the place that I really started to put all that together. As I kind of has kept going in various ways, I have interacted with technology and a lot of different contexts and fields, but I have always been looking, I guess, at technology, both from that kind of interested, obsessed, this is fun, this is interesting, and I want to play with this kind of a position, but also what can I do differently with this that couldn’t be done before? And then in the last 10 or 15 years, I would say it is as much of those as well as what is this technology doing? How is it changing? Who we are? Who is it most in service of?
And, uh, where can I get in the middle of that in some way.
Nir Hindi: You say, what can I do differently with it? [00:03:00] Why you want to do something different with it? Why it is always kind of, the motivation that artists have is that they see something and immediately they think what we can, or what we could do with that.
Not what it can do.
Ben Grosser: Yeah.
That is a good question. You know, I remember when I first got interested in computer music, in my case, it was writing code to generate sound is where I really started. It was at this moment where you had your synthesizers, your middy synthesizers that were popular at the time, often used to recreate sounds that we had heard in some way.
And even a lot of people in, in kind of computer music world were focused on, well, how could I write code to generate sound that uh, mimics a trumpet or sounds like a flute, or really is indistinguishable from a clarinet. And I just never understood why anybody would want any of that. Um, I really wanted to make a sound that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.
That is what seemed attractive to me about the technology is that I could have an [00:04:00] experience that was otherwise impossible or otherwise unattainable. And I mean, why is that my drive? I do not know. I guess I am just constantly in search of aesthetic experience that catches my attention maybe. And technology often seems like, uh, an opportunity along those lines,
Nir Hindi: Ben, in many conversations and talks that you gave in the past, there were many things that capture my attention, but there are two sentences or statements that I want to hear your opinion about.
So, one of the things that you said is that. Software engineers us. What do you mean in this sentence?
Ben Grosser: So, yeah, I think to fully flesh out, what I probably would have said is that we engineer software and software in turn engineers, us back. And as humans, we tend to think of ourselves as the builder of tools.
We assemble us, especially when it comes to the digital, we assemble our digital world. We write software, we make hardware, we [00:05:00] design hardware and we are surrounded by it all the time now. But as humans, we cannot help, even if we want to, we cannot help, but embed the ways we think into that software into those tools.
So, you know, whether it’s, uh, a search engine or a social media platform, and one example would be that if you look at, uh, the largest social media platform on the planet, which would be Facebook, which has 3 billion-plus users and counting one of its primary features in a feature that has been there from the beginning are the visible quantifications throughout the interface that count likes and shares and comments.
And how many minutes ago or seconds ago something happened, or how many people you are supposed to be wishing happy birthday today, for example, and. After 15 years of Facebook, perhaps this does not seem unnatural, but the idea that we were counting with precision exactly how many people laughed at our joke, [00:06:00] or exactly how many friends we have, or exactly how many seconds ago something happened as if that was important.
That is a certain kind of way of thinking. It is a way of thinking that I think comes from, for example, Mark Zuckerberg and the people he assembled to build that tool. It got embedded into Facebook. And now we all think about ourselves in these ways. It is so difficult for us to not think about and assess ourselves from a metric viewpoint.
So that is just one example of how, the way that a certain kind of segment, uh, maybe a segment of the population that is really focused on data analytics and quantitative analysis and metrics thinks about, well, what should we make as a social media platform? And then they build it. And now we all think that way.
So, when I say software engineers. That is part of that. That is one example of, of, I think how it is, it is changing who we are and what we do.
Nir Hindi: As I mentioned, um, I read the one sentence. I do not remember who said it, that first, we shape our [00:07:00] buildings, our buildings shape us. It will be a very interesting conversation to discuss the difference between software and buildings.
You, uh, rebel against this type of a way of Facebook quantifying our life. And you develop a tool that you call the Facebook Demetricator. What is the Facebook Demetricator?
Ben Grosser: Yes, the Facebook Demetricator is a browser, the web browser extension that is free and open-source, and anyone can download it and install it on Chrome or Firefox.
And what it does is hides all visible metrics across the Facebook interface. So instead of saying eight people like this, it just says people like this, instead of saying, you know, you, someone else, and eight other people loved this post, it just says you and other people love this post. It just hides all the numbers, wherever they appear in the interface.
And it really comes out of it, it is a project that I have been working on for almost [00:08:00] 10 years now. Um, I started working on it in 2011. I released it in 2012 and it really grew out of my own experience of the platform, just as an excited user of Facebook back when that was the hot, um, social media platform that everybody wanted to be on.
Um, it is not anymore. Of course, while you are giggling here too, there was a time, right. When Facebook has held that position. And I mean, really it grew out of, for me that I, I found myself paying an inordinate amount of attention to those numbers becoming self-aware of the fact that as I scanned my feed or looked at what my activity was that I was focusing more on how many people liked my post, rather than on who liked it.
And then I would see how much it was commented on rather than on what they had said. It is almost as if I was just, [00:09:00] you know, how many and how much was more important than the who and the why. And I started to ask myself why. Why do I care about this so much? I mean, what is happening here? And that just led me to kind of go down the road of thinking about, well, look at all the numbers.
And I mean, when you really start to look, they are all over the place and I wanted to, as an artist, you know, the way I think about these things is I want to make something to ask and investigate questions that I have. And so that led me to create the Demetricator, which was the first extension I made to do this kind of work really at first.
So, I could try it, but also, so I could put it out in the world and let anyone out there, try out Facebook for themselves without the numbers and see how it changed their experience of the site.
Nir Hindi: And now you also develop it for Twitter and
Ben Grosser: Yeah. I have one for Twitter and Instagram as well.
Those came a few years later. I focused exclusively on Facebook for several years, but now I [00:10:00] maintain them for other platforms.
Nir Hindi: I think what kind of, I do not know if surprise me or maybe this is because knowing all of this, then working without this, I am already familiar with. I always say that artists are at the forefront of what we know and what we do not know.
And there are always at least five, 10 years before the culture or the market, because you develop it in 2012 and in 2020 or the end of 2019, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter started to experiment with a similar idea. Is that correct?
Ben Grosser: That’s correct.
Yeah. Um, all three, I think maybe the first rumblings started in 2018 with Twitter’s CEO talking about it, not changing anything, but just talking about maybe the follower metric is not incentivizing behavior that we hope to be seen on the platform. Um, but yeah, by 2019, Instagram was talking about it and Facebook was also talking about experimenting with it.
Nir Hindi: and I am interested. [00:11:00] Did they contact you? Did they get to,
Ben Grosser: um, I am sorry, I giggle, you know, the first contact I had from Facebook was in 2016 when they came after me with a bogus legal challenge to get Facebook Demetricator kicked off Chrome web store.
And, um, I was fortunate to have representation from the electronic frontier foundation in that dispute and, uh, was able to get it reinstated. This is shortly before the 2016 election, the election that brought Trump to power. So that was the first I heard of it. No, they have never contacted me other than through legal channels.
Um, When Instagram started talking about it in 2019 and getting a tremendous amount of positive press for their ideas. Yeah. Um, they never contacted me, but a few months after that started happening, they did come after the Instagram, Demetricator kicked off the Chrome web [00:12:00] store. So, it is still off.
I have it out there for Firefox still, but, uh, I have not been able to get it back onto Chrome, so no, they have not seemed interested in talking to me about it. And in fact, they have not, at least the United States. I do not know what it is like in Spain, but in the United States, all the metrics are still there on Instagram.
All the metrics are still there on fire, on Facebook and all the metrics were still there on Twitter. All these experiments did not change anything in the United States.
Nir Hindi: Well, I guess in my question, I was a bit optimistic because I always encourage collaboration with artists because of the work I listed.
You know, part of the challenge for them with this is that they have assembled an ecosystem, a, you know, a social network ecosystem that is highly dependent on the production of engagement by users and visible metrics are an essential component of that production. So, when Instagram came out and said they were interested in possibly hiding.
[00:13:00] you know, they are going to experiment with, they are interested in user wellbeing. It is kind of how they talked about it at the time. And so, they are going to experiment with hiding metrics. They are going to test it out, I think that is what they said. Well, I suspect they are what their tests showed is that it had some moderate, negative consequence on profit.
So perhaps they, um, changed, their mind, I mean, I do not know. I do not have it inside view there.
Nir Hindi: Well, at least one thing I hope we get through this question is that the recognition that you were the one that kind of started with this and not what the media amplify about the company. So, I have another statement to ask you and this time, it is about growth.
And before I ask you about the growth, let us take a short break.
Ben, I want to ask you about another statement you said in the past. You said growth is a state of being, [00:14:00] what does it mean?
Ben Grosser: I think that statement for me comes out of trying to think about w what visible metrics are doing have been doing, you know, why they are so attractive to us in these social media interfaces.
So, my attempts to think about that from a more theoretical perspective and. For me, this gets at, what I tend to think of as the desire for more, it is really the, you know, as a species, we evolved with a need for esteem, with a need to feel valued, whether by others, but also confidence in ourselves. Um, and that worked well for the human species for almost all of the time.
Until very recently, I would say, um, it has had some issues. And what it did is it ran into capitalism where now the value is quantifiable, and growth is a constant requirement for success. And so, we end up in this [00:15:00] situation where, especially when we think about social media platforms that are constantly quantifying our sociality back to us telling us how many friends we have, how many followers we have, how much our post was liked or shared or commented or retweeted, et cetera, we.
It is very difficult for us to not want those numbers to always be larger. It is great to have 100 followers, but I would rather have 200. It is great to have 100 likes, but I would rather have 101 people with a million followers buying more. We want these numbers, especially when they reflect on us to keep going up.
And that is the world we live in. It is a world that is constantly counting and constantly valuing more but more. Is it really achievable, it is not an end goal when you, if more is what you want? Well, then how do you know when you have it, right? It is like, you can never really get there. It is like this horizon line that you can never really [00:16:00] reach.
You know this is present in so many ways in society. I talk a lot about software and platforms and metrics and all of that, but of course, we see it in money and, uh, you know, wealth and, and the accumulation of wealth and the way in which that produces extreme inequality. We see it in the environment and the way in which the absolute pursuit of more at any cost has dire consequences for the planet.
So, for me, this thing of growth, we have assembled a societal system for ourselves that requires endless growth. To survive. And so, in some ways, we are just a part of it.
Nir Hindi: Yeah.
We have feeding the system.
Ben Grosser: Yes.
It is hard to get. It is hard to get away from it. So, I think that is probably what I was talking about.
Nir Hindi: You also
created kind of, again, I do not know if a presentation, criticism, outwork, how to call it, that you named order of [00:17:00] magnitude. And maybe we can listen for a few seconds from the work. Can you tell us what is the order of magnitude? I remember when I was preparing for our conversation and I watched it, Oh my God.
I felt that I need oxygen support. I felt so anxious.
Ben Grosser: Yes. Yeah. So, order of magnitude, it is a film, you know, as an artist who mostly for the last decade has made code-based artworks, often that manipulate existing software platforms. I wanted to take a step back and think about it. Who engineers the software, you know, we talked about this earlier, right?
It is like we engineer software and software engineers as back. And so, I think I have spent a lot of time on the software engineers as the back part. But with this piece, I really wanted to think about the who engineers software part. And so, I chose Mark Zuckerberg as the quintessential Silicon Valley CEO, you know, one of the richest people to ever make and write in the imaging software.
And I decided to take [00:18:00] every video appearance, every publicly available video appearance of his, from his first appearance at age 19, in 2004, up through his last appearance in 2018, I made this piece in 2019. So, I went up through his last appearance in 2000. 18. So 15 years. So, from age 19 to age 34 for Mark Zuckerberg, and I treated it as an archive and I decided to mine it for the occurrence or the the moments he spoke, one of three things whenever he spoke the word more, whenever he spoke the word grow or growth or grew, and everyone has every utterance of a metric, like 100,000 or, or 2 million.
And I just made a supercut out of all those extractions. Now, when I had this idea originally, I thought, okay, I will go, and I will get all the mores and the grows and [00:19:00] the numbers out of this archive. And it is probably going to add up to what would be a long, supercut relatively in terms of the internet and, and supercut videos of maybe five minutes.
And I was not sure anybody would want to watch. Five minutes of Mark Zuckerberg saying the word more, but that is okay. I do not always try to worry about if someone is going to be interested. I wanted to see what it would be like. And I got to five minutes and it was clear. There was plenty more to work through.
And then I got to 10 minutes and it was still going, and I got to 15 minutes and I knew it was not done. And I kept going. And by the time I finished the project, it was 47 minutes long of just the word more grow 1 billion, essentially. And I think the scale of the work is part of the subject of the work.
You know that Mark Zuckerberg says these words, that those many times, you know, that that is such a, a focus of how he speaks and how he talks about the [00:20:00] company and how he. Articulates the mission and thinks about the world is through these three categories of speech.
Nir Hindi: makes it a mantra.
Ben Grosser: Yeah.
It became the subject.
And so, the thing we were talking about before in terms of how to watch this film, you know, I get a lot of different reactions to it, but one of them, the primary reaction I get is people feeling like they cannot really watch it for very long, but it is a difficult film to watch. And my recommendation there is a couple, one is to watch it with a buddy.
Like, do not be alone in your bedroom with Mark in a tiny corner of the window. You know, just like barking the word more at you for five or 10 minutes until you cannot take it anymore. Get a friend, put it on a big screen, and treat it like a film as opposed to like, an internet video. The truth is theirs, there is a lot of humor.
I think that is still in film and, and there is a lot [00:21:00] of kind of arcs too. You see because it is all in chronological time. So, it starts in 2004 and ends at the end of 2018. You see Mark grow from age 19 to age 34. You see video technology change from age 19 to, you know, from 2004, 2018, you see the internet change in certain ways.
Like there is a lot of history of the last 15 years. Um, that’s kind of captured in that arc. And I think, you know, more broadly for me, the, the film is, is a way of chronicling Silicon Valley’s obsession with growth over the last 15 years. It is through the lens of one company and one person, but that person has been very influential in that culture for, you know, what it means to build a company and how one evaluates success or failure.
Nir Hindi: Yeah.
I am super impressed because, uh, I do not know if you are the only one in the world with so many Mark Zuckerberg. I [00:22:00] do not know if you are the holder of the largest video, archive of Mark Zuckerberg. I remember that in previous conversations, you mentioned that some of the videos were not available in the West.
So, you will find someone in China and like the old ones. And like, so there is a lot, a lot of work that went into these 47 minutes, which kind of, you started to touch it in your answer. And I want to ask your opinion about the Silicon Valley culture, because something that you referred to in your work, it is maybe occupied you while you are doing your work.
What is your opinion on this silicon Valley culture?
Ben Grosser: Yeah. I mean, I think about it and have been following it a lot. I mean, I, you know, I, one of my daily loads on my web browser is hacker news. The Y Combinator venture capitalist kind of Silicon Valley Reddit. You might call it where developers post things of interest to the community and have long involved discussions [00:23:00] often.
So, you know, it is not just that I am interested in the things that they make, but I am interested in how they talk about them, how they think about them, what they, what they want to do. And it is a, as someone who is critical every day of software and how it is built and what it does and what it is produced in the world, it is also amazing.
I am very critical of Facebook. I have also gained tremendous value from Facebook personally. I have made all kinds of connections. I never would have made otherwise, um, learned of things I would not have come across. So, iPhones in our pocket. You know, zoom in the middle of the pandemic, like take your pick, you know, the last 15, 20 years or longer, you know, back into the nineties, through the emergence of the worldwide web, um, mid ish, nineties, little earlier, I guess.
Um, these are amazing moments. So, Silicon Valley built that and not only Silicon Valley, of course, but it gets a lot of credit and certainly significant amounts of coming out of that area of the world. [00:24:00] But it also, it is an extremely homogenous culture where first, it is not a diverse place in terms of gender and race.
But also, in terms of even just education. I mean, I mean the United States, I am at the University of Illinois. It is a top computer science school, and it is one of the feeders to Silicon Valley in terms of our computer science program. There are five or six programs in the country that are producing a significant proportion of the people who are writing software in California, nothing against those ways of thinking.
And I think we have some amazing people in our computer science department, but when you have such homogeneity, you tend to have fewer diverse ways of thinking happening. And so, I think this is a quality that is very prevalent throughout. That I think about a lot anyway, that it is not that all developers are the same.
They are not, it is not that they all think the same way they do not, [00:25:00] but a lot of them come from the same programs. A lot of them work in the same few companies. A lot of them live in the same few zip codes. And a lot of them are thinking about building software, not to solve an existing problem or to change the world in the most positive way possible.
But how can they grow as fast as possible to be acquired? This becomes the motivation for so many of them. It is, uh, you know, for the last 15 years or so, it has been the gold rush of the 21st century and it is produced a lot of wealth to produce amazing experiences through technology and it is produced tremendous damage and destruction.
For the world as well. I mean, I, I live in the United States. We now have a new president here. We are talking in, uh, early 2021. But just even the ways [00:26:00] in which the Facebook platform is one example, you know, has played out in terms of the way in which, you know, everything from fake news. And, you know, we can, we can go down that whole path of interest, but these are all mixed up.
I think partially because the culture is not organized around how can we make the best things for society? It is about how can we be first and biggest.
Nir Hindi: So, it leads me to my next question, because we started to speak about it in the past. One of the things that I think surprised me. In the movie, a social dilemma that it was the first time that I heard that Stanford has the persuasion technology lab.
That in many ways, it is kind of, I must admit kind of scared me that to think that there is a lab that thinks about how to create this addictive behavior, at least as an outsider, I do not know exactly what they do in the lab. Just from the name, I can think about this [00:27:00] addictiveness and stickiness that that technology creates.
Now, I do not know how it relates, or if it relates to the work that you are doing at the critical technology study labs at the national center for supercomputing application and are also kind of faculty member, not kind of, you are a faculty member at the unit for criticism and interpretive theory at the school of information sciences.
Can you tell us more about those? These were the type of work that you are doing.
Ben Grosser: Sure.
Yeah. You know, my home department in the university is the school of art and design. I teach in the new media program or I am teaching and do media undergraduates, and, uh, also, uh, graduate students and our MFA studio art program.
But I hold these appointments and I am part of other units on campus to have multidisciplinary conversations. That is why I am interested in doing it. So the school of information sciences is, is a great [00:28:00] example of, you know, it’s funny that the architecture of the University of Illinois campus, it’s a huge, one of these huge, you know, spans hundreds and hundreds of acres of land and some of the agricultural with, you know, crops and cows and, and that kind of thing all the way up to the engineering side of the campus, which is a very prominent engineering school, very big.
And the architecture of the campus is such that kind of the arts and humanities are at one end and science and engineering are at the other. And. The school of information, sciences is almost architecturally right in the middle and it is the right place for that school because it is this place where it is not just thinking about the digital and the computational, but it is thinking about the human and where is the human in that equation?
And how is this a human activity, a cultural activity, and not only as a computational activity? And of course, there are people that further, other than, you know, on one side who think those ways too, and on other sides, I do not mean to [00:29:00] segment everybody, but it is just funny how the architecture leads. To this kind of a layout and the school of information sciences, the ice school, you know, it is where data science happens, but it is also where library science and librarianship happens.
So, I find it, uh, a fruitful place to be a part of, to engage in conversations and everything from metadata and archives and scrapbooking and storytelling to data science and visualization and computational types of topics. The unit for the criticism is in a different unit. And that is more of a critical theory kind of a place, but it is, um, uh, meaning it is where the humanists and the artists tend to get together to talk about topics of critical theory and then NCSA the national center for supercomputing applications, where I have a lab with my colleague, Jodi Byrd, who is an indigenous studies scholar post-colonial theory, and game [00:30:00] studies scholar, you know, NCSA is.
I do not know if it is a unit that would have ever come across your landscape from your vantage point, but it has a long storied history. It is where Marc Andreessen was when he created Netscape, for example. And it is probably one of its most well-known kind of history points is that the web browser was born.
There was mosaic, you know, originally produced at NCSA. Now I was not a part of it back then, but it is an interesting place. It is a research center on the campus that has all kinds of computational science happening. A lot of it involved in high-performance computing. So, the kinds of things that require high performance, computing, physics, and astronomy, and those kinds of things, but there is also a strong visualization and kind of aesthetic component that happens there.
And so. It is a fun place for me to be a part of, in the sense that I have this lab. It is a research lab and, you know, we are a part of the culture and society [00:31:00] segment of NCSA, and it is broken down into a kind of different areas. And so, you know, it intentionally has as part of it, a way of thinking about the cultural effects of technology.
That is really what my area is about there. And for me, it serves as a, as research. So, I do not have a typical artist studio on campus. Instead, I have a lab with a colleague and in a research center the, on the engineering side of the campus, but it allows me to be in all these different kinds of conversations.
Nir Hindi: So, you mentioned. Multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary thinking, you already did it in the past, in the Beckman Institute for advanced science and technology. And over there, you did a very interesting project if I recall, correctly. Kind of bridging between science and society, science imagery, and visual products with society.
First, I would be happy to hear your take about this project and then maybe ask you how we can [00:32:00] cultivate it more in an era that requires all of us to specialize, specialize,
Ben Grosser: Yeah. It is such a great question. I think the project you are talking about is bug scope.
So yeah, I was working at the Beckman Institute, I worked there for 12 years and it was an interesting time. Then I worked the, in the imaging technology group, which provided facilities for visualization and microscopy, and imaging, but we also did research projects. And when I, I was still new there and I was part of the group.
I was one of the coders on this project called bug scope, which is, we had just gotten as part of the group, uh, a brand new, um, electron scanning, electron microscope of $500,000 instrument back then turn of the century. And part of that effort was to develop in-house custom software that would make it possible for people over the web.
Uh, this is, uh, in the year 1999, [00:33:00] um, to log on and control the microscope in real-time and to grab images from it. And the idea was to the kids in classrooms, all around the country, and eventually all around the world could find bugs. Um, insects in their own environment. And then they can put them in the mail and send them to us and we would put the bug in the microscope and then they could log on through the interface that we developed and control the microscope and have access to this piece of technology they’d never get to play with otherwise, you know, another big piece of the project was that they also got to chat with our microscopists and we were bringing in tamale adjusts.
And, and so it was a conversation that was happening in real-time as they got to play with the microscope, which, you know, bugs under our own skin. And electro-microscope just amazing looking things. And so visually it is a way to draw kids into it. The world of things you cannot yet [00:34:00] see, but you could get to be a part of, you know, it is a way of creating mystery and wonder and activating pathways towards how they could get to have more agency in investigating questions of
Nir Hindi: curiosity that I think that you know, it is like in many ways leading me to my second part of the question is like, again, what I see often, I do not want to say that artists are curious more than the rest of the population.
It is just that I think that the way they work or the type of work they are doing invites intersections of disciplines. So, by nature, your kind of cross disciplines, which I am asking myself how, for example, in computer science departments or physics department, we can have more. Classes for that matter on psychology or philosophy or history of art or poetry or whatever, to kind of open the mind, at least from my perspective to the humanities, better, how we can develop this in your opinion, as someone that [00:35:00] also teaching how we can develop these multi-disciplinary interdisciplinary.
And I always try to bring it to them. I would say to the highest form of a transdisciplinary that we have disciplines, totally different disciplines that come together to create new knowledge.
Ben Grosser: I think about this a lot. I have been thinking about it for a long time. You know, when I first got to Beckman, multidisciplinary science was not the buzzword that it was that it is now.
Now it is almost just kind of, you will hear that all the time and people, all kinds of people are engaging in various levels of multidisciplinary. But there is this constant tension between the need, the absolute need for specialization to advance. I cannot just read a book on nanotechnology and then go figure out and do structures and build atomic machines.
Like whatever. Like I cannot do that. I need a whole to make a small advance in some, in any field can [00:36:00] require for in many fields can require a lifetime of study to push that boundary just a tiny bit further. But there is also a need increasingly, as we specialize as the amount of labor, it takes to specializes.
As everybody gets deeper into their own little narrow view of the world. There is also, I think, an important need for people who are good at translating across disciplinary boundaries, who do not feel because of what their interests are, perhaps that they must spend all their time focused on that one direction.
And I think why art is been an attractive field for me to land in is that artists are not beholden to the method. You know if you. In so many fields to make an advance or even to publish in that field, you must show facility with the the primary methods within the field. You must be able to [00:37:00] speak the language exactly as it has been done before.
And I do not mean that you cannot evolve the method. You just come along and say, I do not really care what your method is, but I am just going to do it differently. That is a hard position to come from, but artists are kind of, that’s kind of, that is kind of the method. The method is that you should not be your method.
Should not be someone else’s method. And so that, I think at least for me, it makes it feel like an experimental vantage point. To look at the world from and makes me feel more comfortable and freer to go talk to people over here and to talk to people over there and to think about things in different ways and to try to integrate weird disparate kind of ways of thinking it into one project.
And I think to kind of go further with this question of like, how do you make productive multidisciplinary happen towards say transdisciplinary kind of activities. The truth is it’s hard work, right? It is hard to talk [00:38:00] across these boundaries. It is hard to be the person in the room who does not know the method.
It is hard to be in conversation with 10 people in the room who know your method. And then there is this one person in the room who does not right. Who wants to also be part of the conversation? So, it really comes, I think, from a need to. Find shared values is how I end up thinking about it. You know, what is it?
We are hoping, what is it we care about? What is it we want to do? What do we hope? How do we hope to move things forward in some way? And that can often be a way of creating, uh, an environment where people can listen to one another, it is a highly labor-intensive activity to do it well because inevitably means you are translating across boundaries and translation.
Can it be slow, at least for me, but I think I find it personally to be an enjoyable kind of place to live and to try to make things happen in a place like [00:39:00] university.
Nir Hindi: Totally. You said so many things that I can refer to, at least from my world. One of the things that I have noticed, the main difference that I say for me between, again, is speaking from my own context about art and business.
Is that for businesses to advance, they need to look to the past, see what worked, and improve it. But artists cannot look to the past and just improve what they did because in many ways you just continued to do the same art that you did in the last five years. So, artists always need to look to the future and ask themselves what I can do next, what they can do differently.
How can I, stop painting in many ways with my right hand and start painting with my left hand. It is always kind of the experimentation forward. It is never about the improvement of the backward. I do not know if I make sense out of here.
Ben Grosser: It certainly makes sense. You know, it reminds me of where we started this conversation where you asked me, you know, well, what is it, why were you playing with computers and music?
And what was it you were hoping to do? And I talked [00:40:00] about wanting to make sounds that did not sound like anything else before. So, what did I make? I made loud, ugly music that most people would do not like. And, you know, like feel proud of the, I would put on concerts of this music and it would be so loud and harsh and crazy that people would be leaving the hall in the middle of the piece.
And I would take it as a badge of honor. I am a little bit more interested in the audience and that was me at 20, right? When I was like, you know, like if there is nobody left at the end of the piece, then that is a success. And now I seek to kind of have more conversation than with nobody but attitude. I think that add to that I can look back and reflect on it myself at age 20.
I see in the future artists; I teach as a professor and I do see in the arts in general and the truth is it also happens in other fields too. But I think art [00:41:00] is kind of strange in that there is, there is a real kind of valuing of there is a cultural value placed on the totally out of left field way of looking at things that do not seem like it came from the last thing.
Now, when you go back and analyze often in some ways you can see how it, like one thing, led to another, but there is also a bit of a myth, you know, a mysticism there too, right? If like, Like it, it came from nowhere. Well, it came from somewhere, but it is a different way of trying to look at the world.