Combining Art and Science through Information Technology

International Conference on Mathematics/Science Education and Technology (M/SET 99), San Antonio, March 1999

Johan GROTH, Ph.D. (
The Interactive Institute and Groth & Groth Ltd.


For the last 200 or so years a "division of knowledge" has characterized the collec-tion, creation, structuring and presentation of information. This division may have had ad-vantages but today the need for a closer coupling between natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and "pure" art becomes more and more apparent. A closer coupling will make methods, tools and ways of expression that today are used only within one field of knowledge available within other fields to mutual benefit. Information technology (IT) can help lessen the "division of knowledge. The reason for this is that IT fundamentally changes how we communicate and exchange knowledge. In Sweden the Interactive Institute will try to explore these new possibilities to see how they affect society in general and, not least, the educational sector.


It is not much of an exaggeration to say that during the last 200 or so years there have been three distinct realms into which all human thoughts, ideas and pieces of knowledge could be divided or sorted. The boundaries between these realms have in many cases and at many times been hard to transcend. The different realms have been characterised by different ways of collecting, structuring and presenting knowledge, and by different meth-ods for validating and evaluating ideas, propositions and facts. Within the educational sector this structure has been reproduced resulting in separated subjects and different ways of teaching, assessing the students' results and, in the end, giving value to the students' achievements. The realms are, first, art, second, social sciences and humanities, and, third, natural sciences and technology.

This division of knowledge has not always been as "natural" or obvious as we may experience it today. Leonardo da Vinci was both an artist and a man knowledgeable in medicine, fluid mechanics and engineering. Pythagoras worked within both mathematics and music. There are many similar examples from ancient Greece and onwards of persons who have combined and used knowledge from what we today perceive as different fields.

At the end of the eighteenth century something appears to happen. Human knowledge is divided into subjects, disciplines or fields. A spectrum evolves from "pure" art via the humanities, social sciences and technology to "pure" science. In this model art and the natural sciences are seen as opposite entities, each one placed on the end of the spectrum.

The "experts", i.e. persons with a main interest in a certain part of the spectrum, become less interested in, or at least produce less important results within, other parts of the spectrum. Berzelius was a chemist, but did he paint? What about Faraday, Maxwell, Bohr, Röntgen and Edison? What did Gaugain know about geology? What about Kafka, Matisse, Moore and Caruso [1]? Perhaps they did know but we do not know of it, which is a point in itself. Sometimes a passage of boundaries has been tried on a more public scale but with varying results. One example of this is Albert Einstein, but even such a great mind did not produce any noteworthy results when he engaged himself in politics and social sciences. August Strindberg's dabbling with mathematics and chemistry is an opportunity for many good laughs, but not for any new insights [2].

Perhaps this "division of knowledge" was a natural consequence of the ever growing amount of knowledge being collected, invented, analysed and structured from the Enlightenment and thereafter. Perhaps there were also deeper reasons, a wish from the "logical" and "objective" natural sciences to make a clear separation from other fields of knowledge so as to rid themselves from "illogical" and "subjective" feelings and their conse-quences dogmatism, superstitions etc. One can even get the feeling that sometimes artificial differences and barriers were introduced and promulgated between the different areas on the spectrum.

Today the "division of knowledge" has reached a level where it is rather uncommon for a person to have a deeper knowledge of more areas than one. Another interesting phenomenon is that many people make it a point that they do not know anything about a certain subject: "I've never understand anything about math. I've tried, but I just can't learn anything." Such remarks are common, normal and do not lead to any comments.

The "division of knowledge" is also reflected within the educational system, which thus supports and enhances the division. Perhaps most obvious is that most school systems are based on the concept of subjects. A subject can be seen as the teaching about a certain part of the spectrum mentioned above. Due to the separation, in school, at higher levels of education and in society as a whole, the different subjects have taken on different characters. The teaching within natural sciences has often been, in a general sense, theoretic. The teaching within art has been based more on practical or hands-on experience. The assessment of knowledge has been based upon written exams or a "repetition of facts" within natural science whereas within the field of art assessment in many cases is based on the presentation of the pupils' own work and creations. In most cases, at least in Sweden, there has also been an implicit value placed on the different subjects from the "important" science subjects to more "fun" subjects, such as music and art. It is also common that the older we get the more subjects we drop and the smaller becomes our part of the knowledge spectrum. Of course, these are all generalisations, which are as true as generalisations usually are.

It is our opinion that the "division of knowledge", even if it in some sense has been both useful and practical, has, in many cases, introduced unnecessary limitations on the development of knowledge within the different areas of knowledge.

Information technology (IT) has the potential to change this and "bend" the spectrum back into a circle where all areas of knowledge are equally close to each other. The reason for this is that IT provides us with a new tool to use when collecting, structuring, transforming and presenting information.

IT's six changes

What is IT and how can IT lessen the division of knowledge? Here IT is to be understood as computers connected to each other through different networks. The networks provide an infrastructure that makes it possible for the computers to exchange information. The Internet is perhaps the most important computer network today. A main reason for this is that even though the Internet is a "network of networks" the users experience the Inter-net as a transparent and open platform.

There are at least six changes that are a direct consequence of IT and its underlying technologies. All are related to how we communicate and exchange information and knowledge between humans.

The first change is the transition from analogue to digital information. Digital information is easier to store and distribute than analogue (compare a vinyl record to a digital sound track). Digital information is possible to copy and multiply without any loss of quality. If information is stored in digital form it becomes easy to change the format of the information (e.g. from a table to a graph). The reason for this is that digital information can be seen as a sequence of numbers that can be manipulated by various algorithms. This is opposed to, e.g., a printed book or an oil painting that can not be operated on in such a way. All sorts of digital information can also be handled with the use of one machine: the computer. When using analogue techniques different machines were often required to present different media formats. The use of computers thus makes it easier and less expensive for everyone to work with information of different kinds. It becomes easier to transform and reinterpret data, to look for new structures or patterns. The use of sound, motion pictures, elaborate graphics etc. are no longer re-served for those who have access to sound studios or special printing machines. This makes it possible e.g. for engineers to present new findings in the formats currently used by artists.

The second change is related to two other characteristics of the computer: the computer's ability to rapidly execute simple instructions such as sorting, transforming or copying information and the computer's, in practice, unlimited (both in volume and time) memory. Humans, on the other hand, are, in most cases, not interested in performing simple, stereotype tasks. We also (luckily) forget pieces of information. Now we can leave the simple tasks and the remembering of all sorts of information to the computers and focus on what humans do better than any machine, viz. imagine, invent and create. In the case of the natural sciences this could mean that we could rid ourselves of some of the "number crunching" and use more time to discuss the how and why of our problems. This could bring philosophy and science closer again.

The third change concerns computers going from standalone machines to being connected to networks. This change makes it possible for us to share resources and information between people. It also makes it possible to work together globally. One could say that the back of the computer has opened up and become a door to the world. It also becomes less and less important what computer you have on your desk and more and more important to what the computer is connected. Indeed, many would agree to that it is the network that is the computer. As the physical distance between persons becomes less important in regards to communication, exchange of information and collaboration shared interests become more important. We will see new communities develop, communities based on shared views and experiences. The members of these communities may develop a strong feeling of relation even though they may never have met each other. In regards to the discussion here this change means that it will become easier to meet persons, persons that you very well might not have had a chance to meet otherwise. Since the meetings will be global we will to a greater extent be subjected to opinions and traditions that differ from our own. This will help break the barriers between different areas of knowledge.

The fourth change concerns our roles as consumers and producers of information. Traditionally a majority were information consumers only. The production of information for a broader audience was the privilege of those who had the knowledge and resources to put up a printing press, a tv-studio etc and had access to proper means for distributing the information. In many countries the production and, perhaps even more, the distribution of information has also been severely regulated. Today anyone with a computer can become an information producer. This means that we will all go in and out of the different roles, being producers within our fields of work or interest and being consumers otherwise. The computer has made it possible for everyone to access all types of information with one tool and to create information in any format. The networks in turn have made it possible to reach a worldwide audience. This also means that our information or knowledge to a greater extent than before must compete for the attention of the intended audience.

The fifth change concerns the formats of information. We see today how the primacy of text is removed and how all formats become equally easy to handle. The dominant role of text is a legacy of the printing press. This technology made it possible to create and multiply texts at a low cost per copy. Images, sound etc. were not possible to handle in the same way. Computers treat all formats equally which makes it possible to use the format of information that suits the needs best. In a sense we are witnessing a return to pre-printing press times when text and pictures were equally easy (or hard) to make and copy. The beautiful, hand written books from medieval times illustrate a way of presenting information that has been lost and now is being reinvented.

The sixth change is about issues and what we may call concurrent publication. We are used to the fact that a piece of information is permanent in the sense that once it is published, as a book, a film, a picture, then it is impossible to change the information except if you publish a new version. What happens now is that we see "living" or dynamic pieces of information. Information, while available for the consumers, can change with time. It is also possible to change the information according to who accesses it or even with the specific user's needs.

Taken together these six, in many ways fundamental, changes will create a new landscape of communication and information exchange. New and larger groups of society will be given tools to work with more and different formats. This will have a direct impact on all sectors of society where information and communication play a central role. The educational sector is one such sector.

IT in the educational system

The changes described above have all had impact on the educational systems of the world. Actually it appears safe to say that no other technology has had such an effect on education in such a short time as IT.

An explanation for this could be that to achieve its goals (which in most cases can be summarised as "to increase the knowledge of the students and improve their skills in various fields") an educational institution typically carries out activities that can be grouped into five categories: communication, presentation, information retrieval, use of tools and developing skills.

Information technology provides a new and powerful infrastructure for working within the first three categories. If school also should prepare pupils for working life, then IT is also of use in the last two categories. Few things have such a broad.

More directly, how do the described changes affect the educational sector?

For one thing new "doors" are opened between educational institutions and the rest of the world. There are many examples of how IT has been used to create new ways of communicating between students and persons from universities, government bodies, companies, organisations etc. The simplicity of sending an e-mail makes it possible for students to interact directly with students in other countries or with experts in different fields. The World Wide Web has made information readily available for everyone, information that earlier was hard or impossible to access.

It is also possible to see a change in what is taught in school and how. The new ways of handling and presenting information reveal connections between subjects, which tend to lead to that subjects change and merge. An example is that in many schools art and music classes merge into a media class.

The availability of information and the ease with which information can be collected from experts imply that the role of teaching materials changes. The most obvious change is that a common teaching material, used by all students in a class or perhaps even in a country, is replaced by individual sources of information collected by each student.

There are also changes taking place within the educational sector whose coupling to IT is less clear. However, experience show that these changes often occur in parallel with the introduction of IT and the direct changes that follow from this. One such change is a shift within education from results ("What is the capital of Brazil?") to processes ("How do we find the name of the capital of Brazil and why do we want to know that?"). Other changes include teachers working in pedagogical teams instead of alone with individual study plans for each student and 40-minute lessons being replaced by longer "working blocks". Interesting is also that whole schools are being rebuilt, from "knowledge factories" to something that looks more like an ordinary workplace.

One should also remember that the pupils and students that leave school today encounter a new work environment. 100 years ago about 80 percent of all Swedes worked as farmers, today the number is 3 percent. The numbers for those working in traditional industry has changed in a similar way, from 50 percent 40 years ago to less than 25 percent today. So where does the jobs go? It is generally believed that by the year 2010 more than half of the workforce will be engaged in work where information and cognitive processes play a central role. These changes will impose new demands on the educational systems of the world. This is indeed a challenge since those that start their careers as teachers today will educate children whose work life will end around 2100!

The Interactive Institute - doing research where art and science meet

In many cases IT has already had an impact on the educational systems. Still we are only in the beginning. There is much more to be done if IT is to bridge the division of knowledge.

One initiative in this field is the Interactive Institute [3], a new Swedish research institute. The overall aim of the Interactive Institute is to combine technical and artistic research and production with reflection on the results and their relations to the users as well as society at large. The vision of the institute is to improve interaction and communication between individuals, groups, and organisations through innovative use of art and technology. The vision is to be realised by creating a setting where researchers and students can meet and through cross-disciplinary research develop new services and products.

The Interactive Institute consists of a network of studios spread over Sweden. The institute and its studios are closely connected to academic institutions, industry and the public sector [4]. Collaboration with international institutes [5] is also a natural part of the institute's activities.

One important activity within the institute is to initiate meetings for persons with different backgrounds and competencies. The idea behind this is that a creative process is based on an exchange of information. To assume that the information needed in this process is well structured, takes on a well-known form or follows a known sequence is not possible. What is certain, however, is that creative processes need direct interaction between humans in ever changing combinations.

The main "deliverable" of the institute will be creative, interdisciplinary persons with an understanding not only of technology and art, but also of what it takes to bring new ideas to a larger audience. Studio and project results will be presented as reports, demonstrators, exhibitions, and other formats depending on what is suitable for each studio. The institute will not deliver market-ready products, but ideas and prototypes that together with an entrepreneurial atmosphere will contribute to new business enterprises.

Admittance to the institute will not only be based on traditional academic merits. This allows young, creative persons who would never go through the normal academic career to work at the studios.

The institute will work within a number of fields among which are smart environments, expressive media, user-oriented design for everyday use, environments for day long and life long learning, and studies in learning and co-operation.

In smart environments embedded computing devices enable rich experience of the environment that can be used for enhancing daily life as well as for art, education and media expressions. Sensor techniques can be used for, e.g., controlling information presentation through detecting presence and movement of people and objects. The work will need a combination of applied aesthetics in text, images, sound and spatial expressions together with advanced sensor and tracking technology. Smart environments can also be used to support the construction of interaction devices and reactive environments that are usable by artists, performers and audiences. Through a combination of expertise in the fine arts and performance arts, hardware and software development, computer science and social science, principles for constructing interactive artistic environments can be developed.

Another interesting field of work is tacit knowledge. While explicit knowledge is possible to formalise and share through the use of "languages", written, spoken or expressed in pictures or sounds, tacit knowledge can not be treated in this way. Thus, to share tacit knowledge in an educational situation demands other methods than to share explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is sometimes called "knowledge through experience", which illustrates how this type of knowledge is best transferred. In a classic classroom situation the focus has been on explicit knowledge. With the use of IT it becomes possible to create environments where experiences and tacit knowledge can be shared. This could e.g. make it possible to help students in developing their personal judgement and attitudes to different subjects. A person's ability to make judgements and his/her attitude towards different aspects of life are important for their functioning in society and working life.

The use of digital worlds and mixtures of real and virtual meeting places are also interesting for the educational purposes. One example is information assistants represented as animated characters, which are increasingly being explored as a complement to traditional, direct manipulation, visualisation interfaces. Virtual "doors" connecting different geographical places is another example of how IT can create new ways of meeting and interacting. This has already been tried in one case where a secondary school in Rågsved, a suburb of Stockholm was linked to Arlanda international airport. The pupils, who represent many different cultures, could meet and talk, in their own languages, with those passing through the airport.

The institute will also try to explore how the commonly used method for providing the public with experimental learning opportunities in science and technology can be extended to art, social sciences and the humanities. Major "science experimentarium parks" exist in many cities throughout the world. The institute is involved in one "cultural experimentarium" project and one that will exhibit not the technologies used today but those of tomorrow. The later exhibition will be located in an old industrial area outside Stockholm. On the premises there will also be two high schools, which will make it possible to directly involve high school students in the institute's work.

Even if IT offers many new possibilities it is also of importance to investigate possible problems of using IT on a broad scale. What happens when virtual reality is perceived nearly as intensely as material reality? What happens to us and our conditions for living and working when fact and fiction blend? One example of what may happen is in industry, when the physical processes at a distant location are monitored virtually in central control rooms. This is one of the main reasons for alienation and loss of skills.

The Interactive Institute will strive to become an internationally well known meeting place were work will be carried out in the areas described above as well as others. The work carried out will, hopefully, also show how the benefits of combing knowledge, bridging the division of knowledge.

Concluding remarks

We believe that the teaching of mathematics, science and technology has much to gain from the use of the means of expression and thinking used in the creative arts. We also believe that the methods and tools developed within the natural sciences can be used to develop new forms of art. As pointed out in one of the proposals for a studio within the Interactive Institute:
"Artistic experiments in themselves are not research. Close co-operation between artists and researchers is necessary for beneficial results. Researchers get in contact with artistic ways of approaching problems that may result in new solutions, and artists are inspired by new technologies to developing new forms of expression."
In another proposal it is concluded that
"many recent international research projects in areas such as Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Computer Supported Co-operative Work (CSCW) already blur the line between IT research and artistic expression - our aim is to remove that line completely. Since we are working with the use and implementation of new technologies with the potential of creating a high impact on modern culture, we find it only natural that our work is informed by trends in popular music, literature, movies, visual and conceptual art, comic books and computer games."
In yet another one it is stated that
"modern information technology radically changes the conditions for research and development in the humanities, cultural sciences and natural sciences, letting them adopt a more interactive approach to their research objects, doing virtual `laboratory work', which will also move them closer to, and strengthen their role in creative cultural work, like art, literature, drama and industrial design."
The "division of knowledge" may have contributed to a clarification of different knowledge areas specific problems and possibilities but it has also limited the toolboxes available within the different fields.

In our opinion much can be gained by combining art and science. This can be done in various ways but we see IT as an important tool for this.


  1. It should be noted that while Kafka, Matisse and Moore created art Caruso was an interpreter of art. This should not lead to any confusion, the discussion about the "division of knowledge" is equally valid whether you are a creator or an interpreter within art, social or natural sciences.
  2. On other hand Strindberg was not only a writer but was also interested in painting and music. It is not unreasonable to believe that had he had the tools he would have worked with multimedia. In that sense Strindberg is a precursor to the artists of today who work with and combine different media.
  4. E.g. the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, The Royal University College of Music, The Centre for User Oriented IT Design at The Royal Institute of Technology, Ericsson, Volvo, IKEA and Telia.
  5. E.g. MIT Media Lab, GMD in Germany, Domus Academy in Milan, Goldsmith College in London and InterMedia in Denmark, Yamaha, SEGA, LEGO and Warner.

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Senast ändrad den 23 februari 1999
av Johan Groth