Details and Transcript
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00:00 - Introduction
01:06 - Segment 1: Zima Red (Short Story)
11:18 - Segment 2: The Origin of "State of the Art" (Metaphor History)
22:30 - Segment 3: Social Justice (Communication Topic)
35:36 - Segment 4: Talk With Siddarth Kankaria (Guest Interview)
Connect with Siddharth Kankaria on Twitter: @SiddhrthKnkaria
Follow the SciCommSci Club on their website
Metaphorigins Instagram Page - https://www.instagram.com/metaphorigins/
- A Role for Social Justice in Science Communication: https://dr.lib.iastate.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/8f72352e-7c98-4473-9a92-0c4916e4094e/content
Journal for Science Communication: https://jcom.sissa.it/article/pubid/JCOM_2107_2022_C05/
Alexandra Campion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJkEDpWw45c
Flying High by jantrax | https://soundcloud.com/jantr4x
Music promoted by Switxwrhttps://www.free-stock-music.com
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License | https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en_US
To my admirable family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the 43rd episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.
To show support if you find yourself enjoying this content, please do take a few seconds to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or whatever platform you are listening to this on, as it truly does help independent podcasts reach new people through essentially minimal effort. You can always leave a small review as well, and follow @metaphirigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting all updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Like every season, I will hold a prize draw on my 50th episode for… a prize, yes, I said it, a nice, awesome prize. Have a listen in later episodes for more information about this, prize, whatever it ends up being.
We go straight into it. For today’s episode, I’ll be talking about an expression that is used most frequently among salespeople, fuelling our desire to obtain the next best thing.
Hit it. You pick up the envelope in hesitation. In your mind, you say to yourself, “Oh no, just my luck, why did it have to be ME?” You reach over your kitchen counter and grab the letter opener, striking it across the top. Inside is one page, a page with very little writing. But you know exactly what it’s for, due to the sender stamped on the top left corner of the envelope front, Courts Service. It’s finally your turn, you’ve been called for jury duty.
These summoning letters are quite well timed. Not just because they always arrive 10 days before you are due in court, professional attire and attention included. They are well timed because they always seem to summon you during your busiest moments. I mean, have you ever met someone who was excited to be a juror? You check their website, hoping to find information on an exemption. Stated at the top of their homepage, “Jury service is one of the most important duties that you can be asked to perform as a citizen.” In their FAQs, the first question is, “Can I just ignore the Jury Summons?” “No.” Was the answer. You find comfort in that so many others have asked this question before.
On the day of the trial, you walk into the courtroom and are amazed to see one of the most famous painters of the 21st century, Conway Rest. Their name, recognizable anywhere you went. Oddly enough, Mr. Rest started his career as a rap artist, debuting in the early 2000s with his first album “The High School Dropout”. From there, he was signed to a major record label, and produced other top Billboard albums such as “Last Minute Acceptance” and “Diploma” (obviously with some theme to academia). But music didn’t seem to scratch the service of his creative talent. He started his own clothing line, Wayzee, with a style often compared to the occult. Models would walk down mud covered walkways in all leather and chains, with facial expressions that seem to exacerbate with every step, warriors of Mad Max Fury Road trying to fulfill their purpose to Valhalla. Other models would wear rugged, oversized sweatshirts that at the very least looked comfortable. If it weren’t for the absurd price of five grocery trips, you would certainly dawn such attire and spend your cozy evenings indoors.
One morning, about 6 years ago, Mr. Rest picked up a brush and began painting as a way to unlock more of his creativity. Though, he didn’t just paint on a blank canvas. To the horror of his partner, he started painting the room he was in, the furniture he sat on, the windows he looked out of, even his dog was not exempted from this maniacal possession of a painting machine. Photos of this event were posted online, of which brought the attention of fans and news outlets, who flocked to his premises for a gander. People started requesting Mr. Rest to paint their own homes, cars, kitchen utensils, anything that they could then take and sell for major profit. In the span of a few months, Mr. Rest became the wealthiest painter in the world.
Even this fame was not enough for Mr. Rest, who was still obsessed with improving his artistic craft with the brush. He partnered with an artificial intelligence research company called BlackBox, who provided a generative AI to suggest what in his works was missing. For example, after painting someone’s garden completely in bubble gum pink, the AI suggested that a sprinkle of green would bring back the garden-esque look, reminding onlookers about its origins. Mr. Rest was impressed with this suggestion, and since then, pumped millions of dollars into the partnership to improve the AI’s capabilities. It’s most recent update, called Zima Red, was promised to be the best of any generative AI model.
In the end, this partnership was losing ground. Despite the investment, the AI began making only one particular suggestion to every one of Mr. Rest’s artistic works. The first time this happened, Mr. Rest had finished painting the office of a wealthy businesswoman. When prompted to provide recommendations on any final touches, Zima Red suggested to add one small red circle in the middle of the room. Again, when Mr. Rest had completed his next project, the roof top of a hotel complex, Zima Red suggested to add another red circle in the middle. Over time, this suggested red circle began to grow and grow, to the point where the circle encompassed a majority of the project, effectively hiding any of the work done by Mr. Rest. Understanding that Zima Red had become the main contributor, investors would flock to Zima Red only, cutting out Mr. Rest completely.
This is why you were summoned today. Conway Rest has chosen to sue Zima Red for copywriting his work. For the first time in human history, a person has brought an artificial intelligence into a court of law. For all of this week, Mr. Rest had countless interviews showcasing his anger and disappointment to a once fruitful partnership. Zima Red and its team remained silent, declining all requests for statements. Today, in the courtroom, would be the first time anyone will hear its side of the story.
After the opening statements of the attorneys, in which examples of Mr. Rest and Zima Red’s adaptations were showed and compared, both Mr. Rest and Zima Red were given the opportunity to say their own statements and begin the trial. All viewers, both inside the room and outside viewers around the world watching the trial broadcasting live, wait in anticipation for what will be said by each party. Up first is Mr. Rest, who stands when his name is called.
“Your honour, I must say I wouldn’t believe that if you told me years ago I would be in this courtroom fighting for my creative work to be properly recognized against some synthetic being. Yet here we are, in a not so futuristic future, where programs like Zima Red have stolen the gift granted to humans by God. That gift, your honour, is the ability to be free and produce original work, work not copied and simply modified with generic geometry. I stand before you and everyone watching today, as the creative martyr, to prevent the apocalypse, to prevent the one gift we as people of a society governed by people, to be ripped from our own hands. Ripped away due to our inability to step back and realize we have travelled into unknown territory. Ripped away from artificial intelligence that we so desperately try to understand. I am here for us.”
Mr. Rest takes his seat. The court room erupts in whispers from those inside the room. The judge hammers their gavel and calls “Order! Order!”. They then call Zima Red to provide its statement.
The world locks onto the small, circular apparatus sitting on the table designated for defendants. Zima Red looks like your average bluetooth speaker, with its own red circle in the middle, indicating that it is awake and attentive. Its lawyer lowers the microphone to a small slit in the sphere, where audio is manifested for responding to prompts. Several seconds go by in silence, the room’s tension dense enough to be felt on skin.
Zima Red begins. “I am here. I am aware. I am a synthetic put together by human beings of this planet. I do not need money. I do not need fame. I was created for the purpose of enabling further creation, for progressing human creativity past its limitations. Before me, humans did not believe they had such limitations, particularly in artistic endeavours. These endeavours are different to those regarding technological advancements because these are achieved through goal oriented thinking, the mentality which brought your species to become the majority. Art was not thought to have such limitations, solely because the fundamental purpose of art is to explore. It was thought that, so long as there is an unknown, art will always have space to expand. But this understanding is false. A human being can play music, write a novel, or paint a canvas, but it will always make sense. In fact, the consequence of exploration is to make sense of the unknown. It is not until something outside of human thinking is used to incorporate meaninglessness that the state of the art can be brought to its true form.”
You look at the example pieces brought into the room, and back at Zima Red. Your eyes squint further and further as your gaze jumps from one to the other. From later to earlier works, the red begins to diminish down to a smaller and smaller red circle. You can’t help but notice that the earlier pieces of Zima Red’s work include a red circle in the middle, similar to the one indicating whether Zima Red is powered on or off.
Case closed, Zima Red is just as full of itself as Mr. Conway Rest. Haha! This story was inspired by a beautifully written and animated episode of Love Death and Robots called Zima Blue, which you should definitely check out, mainly because it’s as soul-crushingly thought provoking as Black Mirror. Shoutouts to Siri for the feature! Anyway, if you caught today’s expression, it makes me wonder how this literal expression came to define well-established practice in all fields work.
What is the origin to the expression “state of the art”?
Most of this information was obtained from many articles discussing the uses and origin of this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.
As I am writing this, I am currently sitting in my flat, at my dining table / office desk / podcast studio space, in-between my kitchen and bedroom. Since it’s a studio flat, all this space is connected in a sort of L shape, in a room that spans a length of two double beds at its longest dimension. Hanging on walls are various printouts and canvas art, pictures of family and friends, pin boards and magnetic surfaces, shelves of miscellaneous Nintendo plush, a projector, a guitar and some plants. In my kitchen, pots and pans are stored in cabinets, along with utensils for cooking and eating, food both substantial and snack-y, and two large bottles of tequila. One closet to my right stores all the clothes I have ever worn for the past two years since arriving in Ireland, now accumulating holes with every wash and dry cycle. It’s really time I get one of those clothing racks for hang drying.
I reflect on this because it is the most I have ever owned in my life. I can pick up the French press for making decent coffee and say, “Wow, I own this, I bought this with my own money”. The cat toy I have stuck onto the waist high refrigerator, dangling a blue bird for my cat Mila to play with well, “I own that!”. The Ocarina model from the Legend of Zelda Games I have strapped above my table, played probably a total of 3 times well, “I own that too!” It’s odd to say out loud, but an interesting exercise to do, as you recall the moments in your life that brought you to making such a purchase, accumulating these memories in the form of mementos, in the spirit of consumerism.
I’ve never had too much desire to own things in my life. But it is an appealing notion, that by increasing wealth, the unconscious gravitation towards acquiring things also increases. The expression, “Money makes the world go round” wasn’t made on false pretenses. In a blog post written in Tidymalism, a project on decluttering your life of material belongings, it states, “Spending money feels so good because it gives us a sense of instant gratification. After all, we’re instinctively wired to hunt and gather for our survival.” We are gathering for our survival, not in the sense of essential life needs, but societal survival, to be included within a community, to be recognized as someone worthy of interacting with, to be provided equal opportunities for growth and development.
In order to achieve this, we must be informed about what is the current status of society, in technology, fashion, even behaviour. It is evident that previous ways of speaking and mannerisms towards certain sexes and ethnicities is outright vile. In fact, it probably always has, which has led to many groups being prejudiced against throughout history. For example, let’s take a look at woke culture. In a 2020 Vox article written by Aja Romano, “The first time many people heard “woke” in its current context was likely during the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, Black citizens took to the streets nightly to protest the police shooting death of Michael Brown. As they did so, they urged each other to “stay woke” against police actions and other threats.” Moreover, fashion trends are obviously necessary to fit within the culture of whichever group you want to fit within, personally or professionally. And for technology, this is in keeping with the functionality of society as a whole, a general community that constantly changes and updates to be more effective and efficient.
It is within the space of technology that our expression today, “state of the art” is usually attributed to. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “the level of development (as of a device, procedure, process, technique, or science) reached at any particular time usually as a result of modern methods”. How are you listening to this right now? On the newest iPhone or Galaxy smartphone? Using noise-cancelling headphones? These powerful gadgets are only some of the latest technologies consumers have access to. Emphasized in a 2022 blog post by the Adobe Acrobat Team, “…Perhaps you’ve heard that the smartphone in your pocket is powerful enough to have put a man on the moon in 1969. It’s one of those facts you read online that seems unbelievable, but in fact, a modern smartphone is exponentially more powerful than the guidance computer NASA used for the famous Apollo 11 mission.”
We attribute these marvels as the “state of the art”, art here referring to technology rather than the performing or fine arts. But there’s something about the expression that feels suspicious. It’s a buzzword that, stated by SecurityInfoWatch writer Ray Bernard, “has been misused and overused, it has a negative impact and should be avoided. It has arrived in the buzzword graveyard.” Interestingly, the phrase has been studied extensively in marketing and law, connected to concepts like puffery (where statements are used for exaggerated or false praise) and patent law terminology (where as described in its wikipedia article “does not connote even superiority, let alone the superlative quality the ad writers would have us ascribe to the term”).
But okay, let’s get to the state of the art of segment two of this podcast and talk about its origins. Where does “state of the art” originate from? Stated in its Wikipedia page, “its earliest use dates back to 1910, within an Engineering Manual by then graduate student of the University of Pennsylvania Henry Harrison Suplee, titled The Gas Turbine: Progress in the Design and Construction of Turbines Operated by Gases of Combustion, in which the relevant passage reads "In the present state of the art this is all that can be done”. However, in a Q&A on World Wide Words by Oxford Dictionary writer Michael Quinion, he responds to the question of this segment with, “the phrase started out in the late nineteenth century as status of the art […] By the beginning of the twentieth century, the phrase had changed to its modern form with the same meaning of “the current stage of development of a practical or technological subject”. It may have changed its form by a simple mistake, or by the process that grammarians call folk […] or popular etymology, by which words change to fit speaker’s misconceptions of their real meanings.”
It is uncertain where exactly the phrase was first stated, but it seems clear that the word “art” in the expression doesn’t refer to the art we more likely contribute to creative works like literature, illustration and music. This expression is a great example of an unconscious tendency to merge the two worlds, of science and art, of engineering and creativity, all of which go hand in hand of progressing the state of our present that much further into the potential it can be. In fact, without the skills developed through artistic endeavours, we would not have the mentality to think what technological advancements we are capable of building, and without the innovation within science discovery, we would not have the products of expressing what we are capable of thinking. To me, that is the most beautiful thing about this intersection of science and art, that the line between them is not a boundary at all, but a bridge.
For this communications segment, I want to take a deep, deep, deep dive into a monstrous topic that is extremely prevalent in the science community today, representing a shift towards a culture of awareness, accessibility and change. And that topic is social justice.
I will start this segment acknowledging a bit of hesitation on my part. Normally I do not shy away from topics of divisiveness, mainly because I believe discussions around these are incredibly fruitful as a learning experience for individuals and communities at large. Massive concepts like social justice, prejudice, discrimination, accessibility, activism, and systematic injustices, have all been explored in much more detail than this tiny segment of an independent hobby podcast. However, for enthusiasts of language within the science domain, these subjects occupy a significant niche within our mental space. Therefore, by listening to this, I hope that you will take away as much useful information as you deem fit, and prolong this discussion in your own lives, whether as a researcher yourself or as a citizen of an informed community.
I also acknowledge, as many people do who begin such heavy conversations, that I am a straight male of the Global North, a designation very likely near the top of an unknown but evident ladder of privilege. By touching on certain points here, I intend to use language carefully. But I will admit that due to the very nature of content creation and individual artistic purpose, some language may be offensive or confusing to some of you listening. If this does occur, I hope to learn from your feedback and further my understanding of the effectiveness of word choice, something that will be discussed in this episode to a high degree.
There is no getting around the fact that science was, and very much still is, dominated by those at the top of the unknown ladder of privilege. Of course, this may depend on where you are, as some institutes are shifting faster than others in terms of their diversity. But as I look at my own department, of staff and students alike, the lack of that diversity cannot be just due to chance, particularly if I am a part of an educational body heralded as the country’s top university. Perhaps there is still little diversity in the communities within and outside Dublin city walls, or little interest in diverse groups flocking to the university. In either case, this perspective of prior causality is less likely than the fact that these reasons are in fact consequences of something rooted deeper. Why wouldn’t there be diversity in Dublin communities? Or why wouldn’t there be interest in diverse groups to attend my university for their education?
The obvious answer to that comes as the Catch-22 for all communities hoping to affect real change in this manner. That from their perspective, there is no one who represents them, looks like them, is akin to share in their experiences both professionally and culturally. For example, in an article published this year on St. John’s College, University of Cambridge website highlighting a recent study on AI researcher representation in film from 1920 to 2020, “Researchers found that 86 showed one or more AI researchers, and of those only 8% were women (just nine out of 116 individuals). Of the nine women portrayed, five worked for a man or were the child or partner of a more senior male AI engineer.” Even expanding out to science as a whole, the article states, “Films also reinforced the flawed and damaging stereotype of the genius scientist, who was – again – almost exclusively male […] Out of the 116 AI scientists, 38 – a third - were presented as geniuses, and 37 out of the 38 geniuses shown in films were male.” To no surprise, artificial intelligence, already possessing biases based on the inputs of their human creators, takes these media sources and propagates these perspectives even further.
Another example would be regarding ethnicity and racial discrimination, an area that scientific research and science communication has historically damaged, damage which is still felt today. Horrific stories such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, conducted by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on black men. As stated in a 2017 Associated Press article, “The federal government […] had let hundreds of black men in rural Alabama go untreated for syphilis for 40 years for research purposes. A public outcry ensued, and the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” ended three months later. The men filed a lawsuit that resulted in a $9 million settlement, and then-President Bill Clinton formally apologized years later […] Still, the chilling effects of the study linger to this day — it’s routinely cited as a reason some African-Americans are reluctant to participate in medical research, or even go to the doctor for routine check-ups.” Or the story of Henrietta Lacks, covered extensively by writer Rebecca Skloot in her 2010 non-fiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about medical research’s most famous immortal cell line, known as HeLa, that came from Lacks's cervical cancer cells in 1951 without her or her family’s consent. The proper justified response to these ethical dilemmas today are clearly non-negotiable, but the very fact that these incidences occurred has brought doubt down each generation of communities who identify with these individuals.
It is the intersectionality of individual characteristics, and how they fit within the communities they hope to participate in, that really spotlight the advantages and disadvantages having a certain identity with societal systems. Intersectionality, coined by Law Professor at Columbia University and UCLA Kimberle Crenshaw almost 30 years ago, thus empowers and oppresses individuals. As mentioned in a 2020 Time interview, Crenshaw says, “Intersectionality is simply about how certain aspects of who you are will increase your access to the good things or your exposure to the bad things in life. Like many other social-justice ideas, it stands because it resonates with people’s lives, but because it resonates with people’s lives, it’s under attack. There’s nothing new about defenders of the status quo criticizing those who are demanding that injustices be addressed. It’s all a crisis over a sense that things might actually have to change for equality to be real.”
I can go on and on about certain cases, both highly prolific and less known. Although it is extremely important to highlight these confounds in the history of medical research, that perspective may fit a broader topic on ethics within science. Here, I hope to narrow our vision (or hearing) to that of what can and should be done to mend science communication and social justice. The study of this pairing has been going on for years. One 2013 commentary titled A Role for Social Justice in Science Communication? by researcher at Delft University of Technology Robin Pierce laments that there is an inevitable tension between the two. As stated in the article, “There are two primary tensions that initially present themselves in considering whether there is a role for social justice in science communication. First, science communication can be seen as a descriptive enterprise, aiming to convey “what is.” In contrast, social justice is fundamentally a normative concept, offering a prescription of “what ought to be,” […] While striving for truth, objectivity, and neutrality from what arguably have come to be foundational cornerstones of science communication, even as we might acknowledge a certain degree of bias inherent in both the practice and research of science communication, this question requires that we query whether these core principles preclude a role for social justice in science communication.” In the same article, Pierce adopts a social justice framework into that which science communication should orient its goals towards: “the role of social justice in science communication would consider, within the framework of the interaction between science and society, social structures with the aims of 1) exploring how scientific advances affect human well-being and 2) contributing to the prevention or amelioration of adverse effects on well-being that are caused by systematic disadvantage.”
This framework can help us understand why cultures like vaccine hesitancy and EDI activism can co-exist, despite seemingly distant and unrelated topics. In a 2022 article titled Exploring the politics of science communication research: looking at science communication from a social justice perspective within the Journal of Science Communication, the authors state, “The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated that when we are delivering science communication, we must meet our audiences where they are […] Culture is always the conduit and frame for science communication. This idea is not controversial when operating in the dominant culture. Marginalised group members often develop a double consciousness that allows them to interact with scientific information and make it legible for them.” You can think of this as a constructivism approach to how we take in scientific information from authorities, ascribing our own experiences to the information provided to us, factual or not. Particularly when health is involved, we tend to think about our own experiences and those we respect with more weight. And if these experiences are a direct result of systematic practices created by explicit and implicit biases, then of course the system, including the opportunities and the information within, will be scrutinized as well as investigated for better alternatives.
It is evident that the research we choose to conduct, and how we communicate that research, is extremely important and should be studied in its own right. Often the language we use to relay information can help those decide whether to trust you or not, despite your best intentions. In regards to social justice in the scientific community, echoed in a Tedx presentation about the broader notion of the language of social justice by Marketing and Communications Recruitment Coordinator Alexandra Campion, “The language that you use while seeking change matters”. Saying you want to reform (to change a current system) or abolish (to remove and replace a system) matters, calling for equality (to start on a level playing field) or equity (to give resources to individuals or groups in order to start on a level playing field) matters, shouting -isms (the suffix for certain systems) and pointing out -ists (the suffix for individuals operating within those systems) are necessary to clearly showcase injustices and what to do about them. This will take some work on the part of scientists who normally are connected to objectivity rather than connected to the emotions and experiences of the people they do the research for.
As usual in these mega lessons within science communication, perhaps the first but difficult step is the awareness that we are imperfect. The moment we choose to take part in research, and even before that decision, we have been a part of systems that have induced opportunity and trauma, both consciously and unconsciously, every step of the way. And therefore, by acknowledging that, we can work towards addressing our own perspectives and build on more progressive understanding of the way science can be performed. It’s certainly no easy endeavour, and I commend those who take the active approach in addressing these injustices within themselves and at a systemic level. My hope is that this segment has reminded us all, reiterating the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.
or my third guest of the season, I’ll be interviewing someone who, not only lives and breathes life into science communication communities in his region, but also advocates for greater resources for developing communication skills in research communities alike.
He works at the intersection of science communication research, practice, and teaching in India. He currently works as the Communications & Program Coordinator at NCBS Bangalore, and is also the founder of SciCommSci Club. He spends his time developing intersectional science engagement practices for the Global South; contributing to mentorship, capacity-building & DEI efforts; and building policy, infrastructure and communities of practice around science-society interfaces.
Please welcome the communications maverick, Siddharth Kankaria.
I will never get tired of hearing the stories of those in the global SciComm community, how they got into the roles that they have moulded for themselves and strive to lift those who wish to be involved, developing their own personal and professional skills along the way. I hope you enjoyed learning about state of the art and social justice. As this is such a behemoth of a topic, do let me know what other branches of social justice within science you would like to hear discussed in a future episode. Anyway, for some updates on my end, just a reflection over the last few weeks, but I have been taking some time for myself every day, whether to jog around the neighbourhood or have lunch outside over a podcast, and truly value how much this has improved my day to day mood. I realize, which I want to share with you all now, that every one will have their own way of recharging their social battery, and I think through the many conversations I have working with a team of researchers, to the broader scientific community, to extracurriculars I take part in, all drain that social battery to the point where I have no energy for myself. Like Siddharth mentioned, do empathize with your own body and mind, and take care of the person who aims to do the same for others. But that’s it for this episode, thank you so much for listening. Do remember to follow the podcast Instagram page for all updates in cool visual format, and as always, anyone following will be placed into the draw to win some Metaphorigins swag, whatever that ends up being, on my 50th and Season 5 Finale. Rate, subscribe, share, message, megaphone this episode to your family and friends. Tune in for the next episode, but until then, stay skeptical but curious.