The economics of science

March 21st, 2010

Sherry Turkle, in the second chapter of Simulation and Its Discontents, offers so many of what I could call “pearls,” that I find it hard to choose what to comment on here.  She describes the culture of four departments at MIT in the 1980s, just as computers were coming into common use in the classroom.  Those departments all had similar anxieties when faced with the new technology, but each (architecture, engineering, chemistry, and physics) accepted computers to varying degrees and for quite different purposes.

However, one thing that resounded with me, one thing that wasn’t really in the foreground of Turkle’s narrative, was the influence of economics on the decision to accept or reject computer technology for learning and practice in a particular field.  The word that alerted me was “artisanal.”  Several of the faculty in the school of architecture felt they could preserve at least some sense of handmade designs by requiring their students to “soften” the computer drawings, using colored pencils for enhancing and filling in details.  This was called “artisanal compensation.”

I started paying more attention to the descriptions of the conflict between proponents of handmade and machine-made  designs.  Sure enough, time emerged as a big factor.  Students spoke of how computers “made it possible to move rapidly through a series of design alternatives” (p. 12) in the amount of time it would take to produce only one design by hand.  Artisanal quality takes a lot of time; computer simulation takes less.  Although both faculty and students could see the limitations of computer designs, even in critical areas like computational accuracy, the press to produce more in less time is, apparently, just as unrelenting in science as in the fields of business and manufacturing.  The competition for dollars, whether from clients or grant funds, seems to permeate the classroom as it does the larger society.

I think I identify most with the architects in Turkle’s writing, especially with their love for the handmade.  They speak of the intimate knowledge of a project that comes from designing without computers.  When I make something by hand, like a pair of socks, people ask me why I don’t just buy them from the store.  Then, when they find out I not only knit the sock but also spun the wool myself and helped shear the animal it came from, they begin to look at me like I’m crazy.  However, I know more about a sock now than I did before I made one by hand.  I also know more about twist and tension and loft in yarns than I did before I started spinning.  And the satisfaction that comes from wearing something I made from scratch is hundreds of times greater than could come from a store-bought item.  But I also know that I can’t compete against the machine-driven sock industry.  I probably can’t even keep my own feet covered through hand knitting, given the amount of time required to produce just one sock.  So, I also bow to the economics of the machine, knitting only for pleasure instead of necessity.  Maybe modern architects must also content themselves with drawing for pleasure and using computers for more lucrative design.

By the way, my last pair of socks came from an alpaca named Chip, who lives on a farm in southern Illinois.

Turkle, S. (2009). Simulation and Its Discontents.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.


One Response to “The economics of science”

  1. Sherry on March 26, 2010 2:55 am

    Your post reminds me of my advanced stats class. For my midterm I ran the stats and discovered several outcomes that lead me to quickly run the stats again in multiple ways rearranging the variables that were put into the equation. By the end I had almost 80 pages of results data, charts, graphs, etc. from the various tests and combinations that I ran. This would definatly not have been possible without my trusty SPSS program that calculated the various equations. Had this been many years ago, prior to SPSS, I would not have been able to run so many tests in such a short period of time. In this case technology allowed me to explore various options and paths in a short amount of time.

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