Since my teen ages, I remember myself from time to time coming back to the question of why I can see beauty. Every time I used to dip a bit into contemplations I faced another set of questions, like those: why we all see beauty differently, and what are those necessary conditions that enable beauty to happen in my world?
Don’t get me wrong I’ve not just been asking but also researching. Definitely, this a different kind of research you may want to conduct to understand one or another topic. This one would need a lot of your own resources. Indeed, I have turned not only to the examples of beautiful things among those to observe but – what I found particularly interesting – most of the times I turned to my memory and perception. I have been reflexing and analyzing. And I suppose so far I have gotten a lot of what I have been looking for.
What is the Beauty Like?
Every time traveling back in memory to school times I see myself working on the mathematical exercises. And probably there was nothing for me that could compare with my delight when after hours of bending at numerous formulas I could manage to find the way out to connect them in one perfect solution. Well, it could be not so perfect from the other point of view but it was perfect to me at that very moment and I felt pleasure, surprise, and insight. The latter enabled me to see more than I usually could. And it was beautiful. Every time.
Later on, in my university studies, I felt such moments while working on the other scientific branches and their problems. In a while, I realized what drives my persuades of the solution. It was something special, not competing, very far from gaining more intellectual power. But it was a strong perception of beauty that is underlying in everything our world consists of.
I’m not sure whether everyone feels the same about working on mathematical or other scientific problems (however, I believe that everyone who used to solve math in his childhood may recall the feeling of insight, at least). But it’s definitely not the only way and usually just not needed to get the underlying beauty of different objects.
Just imagine that we went to the concert hall to listen to the Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and after the concert, we started to share our impressions. How would you react if I argued that to recognize how beautiful the music was you needed to break it down to the waves? You would probably think that I tried to make it unnecessary more complicated. You would probably say that it was redundant as you could realize all its beauty by just listening to it without making any scientific manipulations. You would be right.
The very similar to the previous example situation may happen if we decide to visit Dresden Gallery. And looking at the painting of Claude Monet I would say that to grasp the real value of the painting we need to understand the particular technique of proportioning colors. Perhaps, it could help us to get more admiration if we knew more about the way one or another painting was made and, therefore, its personal way from the “birth” to the place on the wall of one of the most famous galleries in the world. Or we can measure ourselves by only looking at the one or another art piece because it’s enough to sigh and whisper: “Oh…look, how beautiful it’s”.
What can those different examples – from mathematical exercises to Stravinsky’ Rite of Spring to Artist’s Garden of Claude Monet – tell us about the roots of beauty and our perception of its existence in the object around us? Well, the most important message says that things have the different level of complexity and, therefore, we approach them differently.
Artist’s Garden at Giverny. Claude Monet
From the smell that one can grasp momentarily to the painting that may take more than few seconds to explore and to realize that it carries the value of beauty for the beholder. Then, to the piece of music that may take you few times of listening to say that it’s exactly what you call beauty. And further to complicated concepts like mathematical functions and physical formulas when you spend hours and (sometimes) days to grasp the idea. And when the latter comes you experience the pure moment of appearing closer to understanding the universe.
My research and introspection attempts drove me to the idea that perception of beauty is an insight moment when you grasp the whole essence of the thing. Sometimes objects possess very complicated structure. Therefore, experiencing them takes longer and requires more steps to take. The more abstract the object is – the more time and energy it takes to get to know it. Thus, some things definitely need particular knowledge to be able to value them properly. However, this is a different kind of value that cannot be described as something you can measure objectively – you just feel it as something complete and, therefore, perfect for your perception of the world.
The way how we get this essence of beauty behind the objects around depends on many factors – upbringing conditions, background, interests and a number of slightly perceptible individual things (even a current state of mood matters sometimes). Indeed, the perception of beauty has evolved into the complicated system that doesn’t work plainly from the formula.
How has the perception of beauty become so difficult?
We definitely have certain premises for this. Looking at different species we can observe the way they react to the unordinary for their natural circumstances colors and natural occurrences that we humans also can find beautiful. Just not to make you confused – if any reaction exists and if it somehow changes behavior it’s already not something usual for other species.
Therefore, this reaction in different species can imply that the “chemistry” of beauty is present not only in us but that it traces its way back to our ancestors. Here we face the difficult question: if to consider perceiving beauty as having insight then we have to extrapolate it to the point that insight isn’t uniquely human thing.
We can hardly imagine that other species are capable of getting the entity of the things that surround them. But the insight may have also been evolved from something way simpler. Like attention. Think about red color. A lot of species show an intensive reaction to inserting this color into their natural environment. And we humans are used to rating red clothes higher than clothes of other colors (just one of the numerous examples of how this color influences our behavior). If we touch things with complicated structure, it becomes evident that they also require us to stick our attention (yet, for a longer time), or in other words to focus on them, to be able to get all the underlying graciousness.
Indeed, perception of beauty has evolved from the range of things like attention itself, the need to notice unordinary things and figure out healthy mates, the conditions natural environment that was the most comfortable for living, and from the ability to analyze things – building whole picture from small features and breaking entities to their parts. It all (and perhaps even more) served for shaping the ability to perceive beauty.
Beauty in the Era of Technology
Odors, paintings, architecture, music, poetry – they all have been around for long centuries since the times we can properly trace our history – not guessing what one or another cliff painting or hand tool was meant to tell but understanding from the point of humans we are now. Our ancestors had been building the sense of beauty by evaluating different samples and realizing what fits and what – not. Evolution threw something away and left us with something built in our collective memory, to which we owe a significant part of the sense of beauty we possess.
But what about technology? It has been actively evolving for the past fifty years. However, most of the devices that make our world have appeared in active use in the period of last twenty years. It’s nothing for collective memory. It’s nothing for evolution. So how should we go about our devices? Can they look beautiful for us? I’m sure, they can.
We crave to see beauty in everything that surrounds us. It works unconsciously without any intentional efforts. What does have more chances to appear as something beautiful in our eyes? Something that reminds the things we have previous experience with. The trick here is the most familiar thing looks like – the more chances it has that it drives our attention. In the paintings of nature, we can almost smell the odor of morning in the countryside from childhood, listening to the rock melody we recall our first kiss from the teen ages. And just in the same way, I want my new smartphone to embody all the graciousness of how I see the world around.
Technology is fastly approaching naturalness through simplicity of the shapes and intuitive interfaces. It may sound incredible but technology is becoming close enough to cause an intensive emotional response in the deepest layers of human being, similarly to the audible and visual triggers. It’s something completely different to what technology is supposed to be at the beginning of the era.
Nowadays graphical user interfaces are being actively substituted by intelligent conversational user interfaces that are highly adapted to the way we interact with each other. They are mimicking human behavior and, therefore, in terms of evolution have a lot of chances to survive. Well, it’s joking, though containing some portion of truth. Some of the tech guys seriously argue the technological process is the extension of the natural evolutionary process.
Let’s look at the examples. The first that comes to my mind is Amazon Alexa. It serves as the smart helper you can interact with by means of voice. And it never looks redundantly surrounded by any household devices. It’s undoubtedly smart and natural as all the interactions feel just like talking to somebody who knows you.
Comparing to Alexa here follows a different type of conversational interfaces – chatbots. And if you still consider them something pretty straightforward, made for selfish purposes only, then it’s time to change your mind. Chatbots can be smart and friendly. They can show emotions and be helpful. Xiaoice is one of the greatest examples. Made by a collaboration of Services Group East Asia and Microsoft, Xiaoice is considered as a friend by millions of users. Besides, it works as self-learning system becoming smarter with every new conversation.
The newly emerged conversational interface, Azuma Hiraki, that Japanese people call virtual wife seems to be the one that unites both functionalities of smart chatbot and such one-sided Customer User Interface like Amazon Alexa. Though it looks a bit artificially being embodied in holographic anime character, at the same time it gives you an intensive feeling of talking to real being by using both main types of human interactions – text and voice. It’s meant to help people who frequently face socialization problems. However, it’s quite an ambiguous question – whether it’s going to be useful in this way.
Can you see beauty in these pieces of technology? I bet you can. The more I deep into the intricacies of building such systems – the more I realize how beautiful they can be. Technology is becoming more and more naturally fitting to the purest and simplest things we are interacting with. It gives us confidence. It makes us recall ourselves. It becomes totally irreplaceable. Can you imagine our world without technology? Do you think that it would a better place?