Passive to Active

In their book Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe write about Christopher Knight, one of the forerunners of what is now known as synthetic biology. There is a portion where Knight discusses the differences between biologists and engineers that could lead somewhere:

“My biologist friends would say, ‘We’ve learned everything there is to learn about E. coli, Tom. Why study them?’ The translation of that is, ‘I’ve learned everything that I’m going to learn…from studying E.coli and all of the rest of it is detail which I’m not interested in.”

The engineer’s mind that Knight embodied looked at biological systems differently.

“If your goal is to study complicated biology”, he said, “that’s fine. But if your goal is to take these very simple biological systems and understand everything there is to know about them with the intention of going in and being able to modify them, and to build on that and to do something different, that’s an entirely different perspective and it requires a different degree of understanding…that’s very much more profound than what they (biologists) have.”

Understanding for an engineer is not only knowing the thing but also taking it apart, putting it back together, and modifying its parts. This approach mirrors that of the hip hop producer. She not only learns about a song at face value but rolls up her sleeves: the beat two minutes in is looped, a vocal phrase is lifted for use in another tune, effort is put in so the song can seamlessly transition to another one for a mixtape.

Roland Barthes put it best in his essay Music Practica: “it means that with respect to this music one must put oneself in a position or, better, in the activity of an operator, who knows how to displace, assemble, combine, fit together.” Music is more than listened to and examined on a theoretical and historical level. It is also touched, carried, framed, molded, and transformed.

An otherwise passive relationship is made active. That is the goal.

1 comment
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