I know I haven’t posted in awhile (been busy) but this intellectual praxis by Bret Victor really sparked my interest. Bret is one of 5 who works at Push Pop Press, the programing company designing “a physics-based multi-touch user interface” for the iPad, beginning with the new Al Gore Book. Also in the group is Mike Matas, co-founder of Push Pop and former employee of Apple during the developmental stages of the iPad and iPhone.

Interactive Exploration of a Dynamical System from Bret Victor on Vimeo.

Victor posits in that “The power to understand and predict the quantities of the world should not be restricted to those with a freakish knack for manipulating abstract symbols” and thereby formulates solutions for how mathematical principles could be easily manipulated visually through user interface design to be adequately understood and applied to the concrete world. He says, “Writing and math are both symbol-based systems. But I speculate that written language is less artificial because its symbols map directly to words or phonemes, for which humans are hard-wired” though even more interestingly he refers to math as an art form:

This project is not an attack on practicing math for its own sake. I have no problem with mathematics for recreation, or as an art form… There’s beauty in patterns and rules; there’s challenge in discovering it; that’s all fine. My problem is when mindless tradition and lack of imagination compel us to use this art form, with all of its archaic restrictions, as a practical tool.

He makes an analogy between martial arts and mathematical arts, and then suggests that martial arts have become (for better or for worse) inferior to technological advances in the art of war. It doesn’t mean it’s not graceful or beautiful or valuable to practice martial arts, but that “Unlike math, we recognize that the martial arts are no longer suitable for their original practical purpose, now that technological progress has yielded more wonderously effective ways of smashing people.”

My favorite anecdote is then found here:

(Also unlike math, we don’t force-feed twelve years of lessons to every child on the planet, and those who are unskilled at the art aren’t made to feel ashamed and vaguely inferior.)

I think this is important, given the the sometimes chauvinistic approach to math and science; i.e. the ‘god is dead, all hail modern science!’ approach. I don’t take issue with god existing or not but I do take issue with the systematic disempowerment/devaluation of people/nature/beauty, whatever the approach. I like science an awful lot and think it has a wonderful and intriguing place amongst society where it doesn’t try to explain the-universal-theory-of-everything-to-the-point-of-digressing-into-hard-determinism. In the reprinting of Vandana Shiva’s first book called Staying Alive (originally published in 88), Shiva says the “book focuses on science and development as patriarchal projects not as a denial of other sources of patriarchy, such as religion, but because they are thought to be class, culture, and gender neutral.” In other words as a system developed by people in power, science as a tool of power is still plagued with biases that systematically oppress people. In the case of Staying Alive Shiva is focusing on the agricultural practices of women of color being devalued as work entirely.

I’m making a jump now, and should probably jump back before writing an extended thesis on Shiva’s insight (which I’ll save for another post). I have no idea whether or not Bret Victor would agree with me on these issues, and certainly don’t mean to lessen the glory of his elegant interactive simulation models. You should really check them out here. They are awesome in theory and in practice.

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