I often teach a general education Humanities course (HUM 200, officially titled Connections: Humanities and Technology) on the topic of “Automatic Art.” As a Humanities class, we study representative elements from the entire range of arts and letters:
Those are representative examples of the coursework – but what is “Automatic Art”? The term doesn’t actually have much reality outside of my course. (Frustrated students will often turn to the surrealist technique of Automatic Writing, which does exist, but has little bearing on the collection of objects we study.) I like to tell students that “automatic art” is equivalent to “taking the human out of art,” but what does that actually mean?
Today marks the end of the first week back to class for South Dakota Mines, and the STS faculty are hard at work in their classes and enjoying meeting students! We are teaching classes on Environmental Ethics & STEM (HUM 250 with me), Computers in Society (HUM 375 with Dr. Erica Haugtvedt), E-sports (HUM 376 with Dr. John Dreyer), History and Philosophy of Science (PHIL 335 with Dr. Michael Hudgens), Terror & Horror (ENGL 392 with Dr. Laura Kremmel), and Licit and Illicit Drugs (SOC 411 with Dr. Kayla Pritchard) – plus many others! As this list of courses indicates, STS covers a lot of ground. It needs to, given its promise to study science, technology, and society, and there are countless ways to approach the field and the topics it includes.
In addition to Environmental Ethics & STEM (mentioned above), I am also teaching Connections: Humanities & Technology (HUM 200) this semester, which is a great illustration of what the STS major is all about. Since the course description and title are pretty broad, I’ve narrowed things down to focus on the following big questions:
1. How do we communicate with each other? 2. How do we design and build the places we live?
In response to these questions we will explore communication technologies from paper and books to social media, film, and robots, and we will consider urban design issues like curb cuts and plumbing, historical and contemporary ideas about what a home looks like, and what the city of the future could look like.
To end National Poetry Month and my exploration of the relationships between poetry and science, I want to turn to the process of writing poetry rather than poetry that addresses scientific ideas. More specifically, who – or what – writes poetry? Can an algorithm write poetry? Poetry is usually considered a particularly human thing. It’s an art form that requires linguistic ability, and it is associated with subjective experience, emotion, and interiority. Algorithms have access to language, but they lack individual identity, experiences, and emotions. Algorithms can be programmed to write poetry, so the question is really: does that count as poetry?
Bot or Not (sadly now defunct) takes up this topic by exploring whether we can actually tell the difference between poetry written by a human and poetry written by a bot. Check out some samples and see how you do. Here’s one example to consider:
Red flags the reason for pretty flags. And ribbons. Ribbons of flags And wearing material Reason for wearing material. Give pleasure. Can you give me the regions. The regions and the land. The regions and wheels. All wheels are perfect. Enthusiasm.
Does this seem like the work of a human poet? If you’re looking for expressions of emotion and interiority – as I primed you to do in the introduction – you might suspect this is the work of the bot. It’s not, though. It was written by Gertrude Stein, who was famous for challenging expectations of language use anyway. Kind of a tricky one. Ultimately, though, Oscar Schwartz, one of the creators of Bot or Not, said that 65% of their human readers failed the test for some of the poems in their database, indicating that it’s not just about Gertrude Stein being Gertrude Stein. There’s some real confusion about what’s human about poetry – and about humans themselves.
After Matthew Bumbach’s recent Brown Bag presentation on the history of bluegrass, I found myself thinking about the role of technology in the genre. I’ve long listened to bluegrass myself but have largely taken the technologies involved for granted. I wondered what we can learn about technology by thinking about its role in the arts and also what we can learn about bluegrass specifically by paying attention to its relationship to technology. To find out more, I invited him to discuss the topic.
Christy Tidwell: For any readers who may not be familiar with bluegrass, let’s quickly provide some basic information. How would you define bluegrass in just a couple of sentences? And what is the basic history of the genre?
Matthew Bumbach: Bluegrass music emerged from old time music and hillbilly string bands from the historically isolated region of Appalachia. The primary instruments in the genre are fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, and singers. Bluegrass emerged, as a genre, during the 1940s and 1950s and owes a lot of its character to the unique playing and singing of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs.
CT: With that established, I’d like to focus more specifically on the relationship between bluegrass and technology. People often tend to think about technology as high-tech or futuristic, and bluegrass is not seen as either of those things. Historically speaking, what technologies were important for the creation and dissemination of bluegrass music?
MB: That is an excellent question and one that we don’t often discuss when we talk about this genre. Bluegrass could not have developed the way it did without the microphone. In the early days of bluegrass, the entire band would gather around a single microphone in both recording and live performance applications. They would create blend and balance through the use of proximity to the microphone.
The microphone was first invented and introduced to the public in 1877 by Emile Berliner, but it would be decades before we had a microphone that was effective enough to do what the pioneers of bluegrass needed. E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone (or capacitor microphone) in 1916, a much more sensitive microphone than the earliest moving coil mics from the previous century. It took several more decades for condenser microphones to be study and cheap enough for use by the general public.
I mention the microphone as an indispensable technological advancement in the development of bluegrass music because bluegrass was professional music played by professional musicians. Unlike old time and hillbilly music that was played in churches, porches, and barns, bluegrass music developed in part because it could be played live for large audiences. Virtuosic professional musicians toured the country spreading these new sounds. Furthermore, bluegrass spread through recordings and radio. None of this could have happened without the microphone.