Artists need to listen more attentively to the songs of the synesthetic cyborgs. They need to ditch the flaky new age diets and exercise regimes; the Bronze, Iron and Stone Age mysticisms; and the facile pseudoscience and wake-up to the beauty of the cosmos that modern science is revealing to us.
In his essay, “The Umwelt,” David Eagleman explains that the umwelt is a term invented by biologist Jakob von Uexküll to encapsulate the observation that “different animals in the same environment pick up on different signals,” i.e. honeybees see ultraviolet and rattlesnakes see infrared and humans sense only one ten-trillionth of the electromagnetic spectrum. To put it another way, humans pick up on only 1/10,000,000,000,000 of the possible information floating around in our environment.
As Eagleman says: “It would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, of the unimagined possibilities.”
It also is a wake-up call to artists that we need to start paying attention to and exploring what the tools of science are revealing about our universe. Just as we gain from collaboration with other artists in our own fields and across disciplines—each individual’s umwelt will be slightly different—so too can we gain insight and inspiration from the explorations of sciences’ machines and robots.
The revelations of the cyborgs could be viewed as a form of synesthesia—an experience that is normally experienced in one way (say as a sound) is experienced as another (say a colour). The machines help translate that 9,999,999,999,999/10,000,000,000,000 of the universe that we cannot directly experience into sensory experience that does fall within our perceptual range, within our umwelt.
Take for example, the image of the star factory Cygnus OB2 above. The image from NASA is a composite image comprised of x-ray data from the Chandra observatory (blue), infrared from Spitzer (red), and optical data from the Isaac Newton Telescope (orange), all melded together with computers and digital technology. It is an image that is completely impossible to perceive by human senses unaided by synesthetic cyborgs.
Now, I am not saying that all artists must be astrophysicists and computer engineers. I am, however, suggesting that we spend less time listening to what the mermaids are singing each to each and a little more time appreciating the songs of the synesthetic cyborgs.