NPR logo The Cloud Of Human Feeling: Art, Science And Ways Of Knowing

The Cloud Of Human Feeling: Art, Science And Ways Of Knowing

How many ways of knowing are there? Are they all equal? Does science, with its empirically based method of interrogating nature, trump all others? Do the domains of intuition, emotion, and other, so-called embodied ways of knowing count as knowledge? What of the realms of human spirituality? What of the domains of art?

This question has particular resonance when dealing with Science and Art together. Each is a kind of investigation and each stands as a hallmark of a transition from one kind of hominid consciousness to another. But what is the proper relation between Art and Science? Saying that one deals with the objective while the other with the subjective is too easy, especially considering the way Art and Science have played off each other across history.

So how does the understanding gained in one compare with the vision of the other? Again, does sciences' vision always win? For me these questions come into their starkest contrast when science becomes a tool for artists in their attempts explore what is uniquely human. The uniquely human is exactly what is explored in the remarkable project known as We Feel Fine by Sep Kamvar and Jonathan Harris. I was traveling in London last week when I bumped into their project at the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibit of digital art called Decode.

A screenshot of the "Madness" visualization of feelings data on the We Feel Fine site. Screenshot from hide caption

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A screenshot of the "Madness" visualization of feelings data on the We Feel Fine site.

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We are, each of us, born of a species designed for social interaction. Despite America's vaulted valuation of the individual, millions of years of evolution have programmed us with a refined sense of others, the group. Look at our closest primate relatives and the imperative to gauge the feelings of other members of the tribe becomes clear.

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Everything — our access to food, shelter, mating partners - all of it depends on our capacity to gauge the feelings of those around us and act accordingly. To be social is to have antennas' tuned to feelings of the group. It's an evolutionary addiction. What happens, however, when the group goes global? What happens to our refined sense of others feelings when, through Facebook, Twitter and the thousand other forms of net life; our tribe becomes the whole planet. For Kamvar and Harris the answer was to go data mining.

There are many ways to think about art, science and the relationship between them. It will likely be a subject of many blog posts here in the future. For many, art and science means making computer-generated images of something like the Mandelbrot Set. While I can stare at those algorithmically generated pictures for hours I am not a big fan of these kinds of explorations. They don't push any boundaries in the discovery of what it means to be human.

There is, for me, a far more compelling interaction between art and science. When advances in science allows artists to shift towards entirely new directions in their own explorations of the human predicament then something really interesting happens. That is exactly what Kamvar and Harris have done using computer science algorithms for data mining that were designed to explore large data sets. Their work We Feel Fine is an interactive exploration that takes the cloud of feeling humans have always unconsciously moved through and makes it explicit, dynamic and global.

Data mining refers to computer algorithms that explore massive blocks of information. Computational astrophysicists like myself use data mining to extract information from datasets generated by our simulations. These datasets are too big (terabytes) to simply "look at". Big financial firms use data mining techniques to sort through reams of market data and identify trends. Government security agencies use them to look for terrorist threats in vast seas of internet traffic.

Thinking in an entirely different direction Kamvar and Harris used data mining to look for feelings. Specifically they looked for feelings on the internet. In their own words,

Since August 2005, We Feel Fine has been harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs. Every few minutes, the system searches the world's newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases "I feel" and "I am feeling". When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the "feeling" expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). Because blogs are structured in largely standard ways, the age, gender, and geographical location of the author can often be extracted and saved along with the sentence, as can the local weather conditions at the time the sentence was written. All of this information is saved.

What allows Kamvar and Harris' creation to rise to the level of art is they way it gives us access to this ever shifting cloud of human feeling. Choose "lost" as the feeling you want to explore and their beautifully designed interface displays all the instances of 'I feel lost" as, appropriately, a cloud of moving points.

Click on any particular point and that particular quote from that particular blog appears. The effect is nothing sort of mesmerizing and addictive. From the buzzing cloud of data we extract "I lost my friend and can't sleep at night" written by a 25 year old girl in the Virgin Islands or "I feel this way because I lost someone to cancer" written by a man from British Columbia when it was raining.

Sit with We Feel Fine for just a few minutes and you will feel like the angels in Wings of Desire, eavesdropping on the clamorous inner life of the world.

We Feel Fine definitely teaches us something. No matter how much change we force on ourselves through jet travel and cell phones and internet blogging there are constants that we cannot ignore. The power of emotion, the emotions of others, will always fix our attention. It did so when we lived as small bands of hunter-gatherers and it still does so when we live as nodes in an electronic network. What We Feel Fine, as a work of art, makes explicit is that science and its technological fruits have changed the settings through which we both experience and explore our humanity. But our humanity remains strangely fixed even as it remains ever mysterious to us.