Where we had magic before, today it is engineering

Fernando García-Dory - September 2014

Jane Ellen Harrison, scholar, militant suffragist and part of what was the 'Cambridge Circle of Classic Studies', wrote in 1912 "Ancient Art and Ritual", on the functionality of the rite:

"In real life, Man plough and sow, totally devoted to the practical end of earning his bread. In the dromenon (ritual) of the Festival of the Spring", even though his actions are unpractical, being mere songs, dances and mimics, his intention is practical: to induce the return of the food"

To obtain food, or water, or energy in its purest form, there is no dance or song. We have now science, mechanics. Understanding forces, materials, finding solutions, adjusting machines. Engineering was made to make our world.

"Engineering tends to suggest that there is a cure for most evils, and that the age-old troubles of man such as starvation disease, floods and the like can be surmounted by a proper use of machines" - paper given at the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1958.

In the Department of Engineering, there is a mural titled "A Short History of Engineering", by Tony Bartl. It was presented for the opening of the new Workshops Building on 10th June 1949. The artist describes the painting as " a pictorial solution based on the movement of a wave, chosen as the symbol of development. (...) On the left a figure leads into the composition - early man, assessing nature through his senses, vision and sound. Then the Egyptian age, science close to art, the pyramids, the wheel - and Greece, with its classic knowledge, the Ptolemaic sphere and the screw of Archimedes, Hero´s turbine - Icarus, the desire to overcome gravity, the balloon - and from then onwards, knowledge more usefully employed, Stephenson´s "Rocket", the ship propeller, the rolled steel joist, inventions for sea, land and sky - The Industrial Age becoming more and more functional, gas and electricity revolutionizing the world - the first iron bridge, the jet engine - and finally the engineer of today, receiving knowledge based on the experience of the centuries and extending it towards new horizons."

The wave is a pattern of organised and harmonic movement of a water mass. It can bring solace, with its murmuring against the sand of a beach. But also inspire terror, when superior in force to one of our machines, a ship, in deep waters. If the wave is a representation of a faith in onwards productive and improving development, then the impression of a destructive growth, unleashing catastrophes and uncontrolled, might be more accurately depicted, in our times, with a whirlpool, or in its mythical form, a Maelstrom.

Maybe, not by chance, Poe´s tale "A Descent Into the Maelstrom" (1841) has became an important tool for thought in imagining the risks linked to the evolution of our environment. The illustrator Fritz Eichenberg, sociologist Norbert Elias, media theorist Marshall McLuhan, art theorist Gene Ray and environmental historian Grégory Quenet, and environmental anthropologists S. Teixido and A. Gamboni, have all used the novel to conceptualize the problematics inherent to their times, whether it was the slide toward totalitarianism that paved the way for the Third Reich, the risk of nuclear escalation during the Cold War, the "whirlpool of electronic information" and the politics of terror post-9/11, or, more recently, adaptation to climate change.

In the Age of Man, in the Anthropocene, the apparent technical evolution and organized knowledge, appears as a thin curtain, partially obscuring the view of that growing chaotic and destructive swirl that leave us more with prayers than theorems.

If magic was the realm of the irrational, a way powerless humans had to cope with events that are unpredictable or even unfathomable, then what is today in engineering, can start to go back to magic: self-replicating automatons from which man has no control, or even understanding.

The point of Singularity: Anthony Berglas, thinker and writer of "Artificial Intelligence Will Kill Our Grandchildren" notes that there is no direct evolutionary motivation for an Artificial Intelligence (AI) to be friendly to humans. Evolution has no inherent tendency to produce outcomes valued by humans, and there is little reason to expect an arbitrary optimization process to promote an outcome desired by mankind, rather than inadvertently leading to an AI behaving in a way not intended by its creators (such as Nick Bostrom's whimsical example of an AI which was originally programmed with the goal of manufacturing paper clips, so that when it achieves super intelligence it decides to convert the entire planet into a paper clip manufacturing facility). AI researcher Hugo de Garis suggests that artificial intelligences may simply eliminate the human race for access to scarce resources, and humans would be powerless to stop them. Alternatively, AIs developed under evolutionary pressure to promote their own survival could out-compete humanity. 

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Fernando García-Dory

Fernando García-Dory´s collaborative projects involve using art as a means to try to precipitate social change, often addressing attitudes towards food production, community and tradition.


Sustainable Development

Fernando García-Dory

April 2014 to March 2015


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