Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Art vs. Science; Form vs. Function

This coming fall, my husband and I are teaching a course together. We're actually teaching two sections of the same course, but we'll be using the same readings and syllabus. We've been thinking about this course for a while, but just now feel we're at a place where we can teach it. I originally wanted to do something on Rhetoric and Technology without my husband, but we settled on teaching a class on blogs and blogging that we're calling "Web of Influence." We've had many conversations about it, which have been exciting, and we have a wiki where we're keeping track of things we want to use for the class.

Last night, we had our first argument. Over blog software. He cares about functionality (so do I); I care about its aesthetics. I have been working--as I mentioned in my last post--on tweaking an existing piece of software. It's not perfect, but it has potential. It is flexible, and comparatively speaking, much easier to manipulate. My husband says it looks amateurish and besides, it doesn't *do* what he wants it to do. I said I wanted the ability to change the look of individual blogs easily, to allow the students to do some simple "decorating" if they want. And that's when I find out he doesn't want individual blogs, but a group blog, a la Crooked Timber. Fine, I say, but I still think it should be easy to add links, change the colors, add pictures. Nah, he says, all I care about is does it do x, y, and z.

Let me just say that I don't claim to be an expert on blogs, blogging, blog software, etc. But I read about 120 blogs a day. I post in two blogs almost daily and a third about every other week. I can tweak CSS and html to my heart's content. Mr. Geeky, well, he reads Slashdot and Groklaw and occasionally, Crooked Timber and Tim Burke (who we both know personally). But that's it. He doesn't have his own blog. So I feel like I have a little more experience than he does and a better understanding of the blog gestalt than he does (at least within the group of blogs I read regularly).

But this whole discussion goes deeper than the functionality vs. the aesthetics of blogs. We've been having this discussion for 15 years. No one has come out a winner. The discussion is a pitting of art/form/aesthetics vs. science/function/practicality. When we met, I was a poet; he was a computer scientist (still is). I cared deeply about art and aesthetics. The way things looked, felt, smelled, sounded, and even tasted was important. I noticed them. He was interested in code--beautiful, simple, elegant, but primarily functional. At first, we merely co-opted parts of each other's world views to suit our own purposes. I began writing poems about mathematical equations, space, and chaos theory. Mr. Geeky came to poetry readings and art films.

Later, though, the division became a matter of finances. I was paid less than he was. Science was valued more than literature at least according to graduate assistant pay. Once Mr. Geeky achieved Assistant Professor status, there were even more financial issues. Positions were eliminated in the humanities and increased in the sciences. More money was available for travel in the sciences than in the humanities.

I also approached the topic from the beginnings of scientific inquiry with Locke and Bacon and Hume, Galileo, Kepler and others through a Renaissance Rhetoric seminar. We ended up spending a great deal of time discussing the shift from a more artful, metaphoric way of writing to a more practical, logical way of presenting an argument. Of course, logic had been a key part before "science" gained ground as a real discipline, but the value of certain rhetorical devices, ones that elicited emotions, for example, began to fade. I brought the class discussions home. There was agreement on the shift and even agreement that sometimes scientific writing and rhetoric are "too" logical and unappealing to the general public, but still no real meeting of the minds.

In our technology purchases and use is perhaps where the division is greatest. I am not opposed to function. I like things that work well, but I want them to look nice too. After spending years staring at a black box while writing, it is delightful to have my sleek iMac, white and gleaming facing me instead. Mr. Geeky--still looking at the black box. Though I am no designer, I like to play with the look of the web sites I maintain. I think about where to place information, what color the fonts should be and how big in order for the site be aesthetically pleasing enough to keep people coming back. Of course it must be functional or people will be frustrated, but if it's not pleasing to look at, you won't entice them to dive deeper, to explore. It's one of my biggest complaints about a great deal of open source software. Yes, much of it is functional. There is elegant code behind it, but it's ugly. The buttons look like the ones we saw in 1994. The color schemes tend to be blue, gray and black. There is no thought about the design. Mr. Geeky--only open source.

I like a nice marriage of form and function. It's why I like my iMac so much. It works really well and it looks really nice. I think if we're going to be immersed in a technological world, it had better look damn good. Hopefully my real marriage can survive our art and science divide. But if the past is any indication, I think we'll be agreeing to disagree.