Augmented Thinking for A Complex World: THE NEXUS: The new convergence of Art, Technology and Science.
Reviewed By : Yuri F Malina, UC Berkeley and Roger F. Malina, University of Texas at Dallas
We recommend that all those looking to break down disciplinary boundaries read “The Nexus.” The book is written for creative professionals, and leaders across government, academia, and industry. “The Nexus” serves a compendium of the historical underpinnings, the lessons learned, and the broader implications of Dr. Julio Mario Ottino (JMO)’s and Bruce Mau (BM)’s decades long work to transcend barriers between art, science, and technology in the academic and corporate worlds.
In “The Nexus” the authors argue that today’s most pressing challenges, such as those relating to sustainability, security or global health are increasingly complex. These types of complex challenges, the authors argue, will only yield to individuals, teams and organizations that embrace what they call “Nexus Thinking,” or the ability to leverage the specialized knowledge and modes of thinking from the diverse domains of human creativity- art, science, and technology. This framing is supported in part by JMO’s research in the science of complexity, and BM’s creative career as a designer and consultant for major universities, corporations, and nonprofits.
We were both drawn to this book given our respective proximity to the subject matter. I (Roger) have served as Executive Editor of Leonardo Publications at MIT Press for over 40 years alongside an active career as an astrophysicist. I have now been co-directing the ArtSciLab at UT Dallas that conducts research on the hybridization of art and science. I (Yuri) attended Northwestern University between 2008 and 2011, where I experienced firsthand JMO and BM’s efforts to train “Nexus Thinkers,” before launching a career in entrepreneurship and research. (JMO became Dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and BM became a Distinguished Fellow at the Segal Design Institute in the years prior to my arriving on campus.
For over a decade, JMO with help from BM overhauled the training of engineering graduate and undergraduate students at Northwestern, with wide-ranging implications across the university and beyond. This overhaul resulted in the launch of a wide array of programs that effectively brought together engineers with individuals throughout the university to conduct research, launch businesses, create new technologies and artworks. Beyond serving as inspiration for “The Nexus,” this work was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) with the nation’s highest honor for engineering education, the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education. Given this backdrop, “The Nexus” is not an ungrounded intellectual exercise; it is the history, statement, and extension of a theory the authors have successfully translated into practice.
The collaboration between JMO and the BM has resulted in an artifact that is unlike any other non-fiction book we have read. The way the book has been designed and visually arranged, disrupts normal reading and thinking. Consistent with the authors’ argument about ‘augmented’ thinking, full-bleed photographs, and figures from the worlds of art, technology, and science, are interspersed with in-depth written case studies and commentary. This design encourages the reader to engage not only in logical, analytical, and rational consideration, but also creative, intuitive, and imaginative exploration. At once historical and beautiful, inspiring, and practical, the design of “The Nexus” has succeeded in an integration of form and function; an accomplishment seldom seen in the world of non-fiction books.
In making the case for “Nexus Thinking” that defies disciplinary categorization, the authors were faced with the paradox of needing to categorize the modes of thinking and the disciplines they are working to transcend. Rather than impede their argument, they have tackled this paradox with their respective expertise in complexity theory and design methods and shown how synergy between art and science has been achieved in the past and can be achieved today.
The authors acknowledge that their extensive historical and contemporary account is western-centric, and while they do touch on non-western sources such as the work of author Jorge Luis Borges and painter Lucio Fontana from Latin America, or artists Xu Bing from China, and Tavares Strachan from Barbados, we were left wondering whether a culturally-invariant argument for “Nexus Thinking” could be made with more thorough treatment of non-western artists and scientists.
In my (Roger’s) work in Latin America I learned for example of how many indigenous cultures do not divide knowledge into art, science and technology but prefer, for instance, to distinguish recent from ancient knowledge, local and distant. There are many other possible taxonomies of knowledge, the western tree of knowledge being incidental. What lessons could be gleaned from transcultural methods when it comes to operating at "The Nexus”? What is the relevance and historical underpinnings of “The Nexus” in Asian, African, or Latin cultures? This would be an exciting research project for aspiring “Nexus Thinkers” or interested readers. Joseph Needham’s “Science and Civilization in China” could for example serve as a good starting point.
Inevitably we, and indeed the authors, discussed the relevance of the book’s thesis to our post pandemic world of 8 billion humans plus. Let’s hope this book is a desirable perturbation in an increasingly complex world.
Conflict of Interest declaration
Yuri Malina was a student of the two authors of this book. Roger Malina is the Executive Editor of Leonardo Publications at MIT Press and has been a long-time proponent for the ideas underpinning “The Nexus,” albeit in other forms.