Letter from the Editor

Perspective on 10 Breakthrough Technologies

  • This letter appeared in the May/June 2014 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • April 23, 2014

In this issue of the magazine, Brian Bergstein, MIT Technology Review’s deputy editor, interviewed Sarah Lewis, a curator, about the “accomplishments that come from seemingly improbable circumstances and the connections between art and science” (see “Q&A: Sarah Lewis”). Asked about Samuel Morse, who invented the telegraph after years of struggling as a painter, Lewis says:

Jason Pontin

“Few people recognize that when they’re moved by a work of art, they’re moved by an artist’s ability to solve a problem that is often a long-standing, timeless one. For Cézanne, it was how to realize nature in paint. He didn’t sign 90 percent of his paintings, because he didn’t feel he had yet solved the problem … All these different works are solutions to problems. For some people, there’s no differentiation between finding something new in paint and finding something technologically.”

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Lewis also talks about how attempts to solve problems in art and technology often risk failure—not merely the failure that Silicon Valley cheers (where venture capitalists decline to continue funding a startup, and the entrepreneur turns to another venture) but deep failure, where “your entire life” is a loss.

This desire to solve problems, which is common to all real artists and true innovators, recalls the career of James Turrell, who “for almost half a century … has been making innovative art out of the most fundamental elements: light, space, and time.” In “Enlightened Spaces,” the art critic Martin Gayford describes Turrell’s masterpiece, at an extinct volcano called Roden Crater: “in sheer scale, the most ambitious artwork of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.” It is “still unfinished after 40 years in the making.”

The artwork, in the Painted Desert of Arizona northeast of Flagstaff, “features a huge circular opening to the sky, circumscribed by the rim of the crater itself, and creates the illusion (from … inside the crater) of a heavenly dome above,” Gayford writes. “Below the surface are many openings and chambers that are configured with particular celestial sights.” Tunnels at Roden Crater function as camerae obscurae, projecting onto walls images of the sun at the summer and winter solstices, or of the moon every 18.61 years.

The installation at Roden Crater may never be finished. As an attempt to solve the problem of how (in ­Turrell’s words) he could create “spaces that engaged celestial events in light,” the monumental artwork may be a lifetime’s failure. On the project’s website, ­Turrell has posted a message: “I ask for your patience, realize that no one has been more patient than I have.”

Every year, we highlight 10 technologies that we believe will have a great impact. (See “10 Breakthrough Technologies.”) This year, each breakthrough was the solution to a long-standing problem, and in a few cases it followed decades of frustration. Whether the problem was creating machines that have the balance and agility to walk and run across rough and uneven terrain (see “Agile Robots”) or designing virtual-reality goggles finally good enough and cheap enough to be widely used (see “Oculus Rift”), the solutions demanded artistic creativity as well as a willingness to suffer failure. Technologists tend to remember those innovators who succeeded in solving problems (and we celebrate them in these pages); yet more heroic are those who contributed without recognition to the incremental improvements or necessary but unsuccessful experiments that led ineluctably to the breakthrough itself.

Write to me at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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