Make Space for Beauty

Students of computer science get taught, at places like Stanford and MIT, how to make things. But they don’t get taught — at least not in a traditional computer science curriculum — how to decide what to make. This is because, in the industrial model of work, they would not graduate into a world where they had much of a choice. They would work for a company that would tell them what to make.

But as software has gotten less expensive to make, so, too, has it become more entrepreneurial. We find ourselves responsible not only for building things, but for deciding what to build. And in doing so we face a question that we were not taught to answer in school: how do we decide?

I was thinking about this question the other day when I heard a story on the radio about birdsong. The guest, an ecologist who studies sound, noted that humans have a bandwidth of super-sensitive hearing between 2.5 and 5 kilohertz. This is surprising, he said, because the normal human voice is much lower — between 500 hertz and 2 kilohertz. So human hearing is not matched to the human voice.

But there is, he said, a perfect match in nature: birdsong. Our hearing evolved to hear even the faintest birdsong. And why? Because birdsong is a primary indicator of habitats prosperous to humans.

This is a fairly recent conversation in the quantitative sciences; it was started less than 100 years ago. But we were able to act for thousands of years without yet knowing the science. Our ancestors followed birdsong to flourishing habitats, because birdsong is beautiful.

So how do we decide what to make? It is tempting to apply our quantitative skills to this question, to analyze the data and decide based on the numbers. There is a place for that, of course, but I wouldn’t begin there.

I would begin, instead, by tapping into our well of feelings to see what makes us feel peaceful, feel sublime, feel alive, to see what fills us with wonder and hope. I would begin, on other words, by tapping into what is beautiful.

If we create, inside of ourselves, a respect for beauty, then we will create beauty outside of ourselves. And in doing so, we might find that beauty is not entirely subjective. We might find that cultivating a keen awareness of our own feelings is not so different from understanding the feelings of others. We might find that what makes us feel peaceful makes others feel peaceful, that what makes us feel sublime makes others feel sublime, that what makes us feel alive makes others feel alive. We might find that what fills us with wonder and hope fills others with wonder and hope. We might find that what is beautiful to us is beautiful to others.

And we might find that in that beauty there are truths that science has not yet discovered.

Make space for beauty.