Sketching the Long View

I realized toward the end of our design process that the long timeline Miriam and I created for BCL/IGB might be described as a sort of “universal powerpoint,” a backdrop for multiple conversations.

With this in mind, as well as Perec and perhaps even Flannery O’Connor, here’s the story I read last week before the mural, as a demonstration of use:

Around 1640, as William Harvey of England first observes eggs in the dissected ovaries of one of King Charles’ deer, one of the first French slave ships leaves a harbor bound for Africa. Meanwhile, here in what French explorers will eventually call Illinois, the night was quiet. No European had yet laid eyes on this plot.

One early morning in September of 1786, Robert Darwin, soon to be father to Charles, wakes in Edinburgh to monitor the progress of sap moving through a tree sapling. Meanwhile, in Carslbad, the German writer Goethe sneaks off to Italy without saying goodbye to friends. While there he first imagines that different varieties of plants must have a common origin or ancestor, from which their physical characteristics derive. As Goethe travels, a French trader makes his way to present-day Nigeria to request the purchase of slaves from an Ebo king there. The king would sell him none.

A century passes. Transatlantic slave trade ends. As this University enters its seventh year, a young biologist named William Bateson, the grandson of an influential Cotton merchant, leaves England bound for Russia. Via letters, Bateson corresponds with friends along the way about what must be wrong with the theories of gradual Evolution espoused by family friend Charles Darwin.

He later returns home and coins the phrase “genetics” to describe the rapid variations produced through his experiments with Chickens. Bateson and his wife Beatrice would conceive three sons, the youngest of which, Gregory, is born in 1904.

World War 1 comes and goes. North of Urbana in Rantoul, an air base grows, new noises fill the air. Back in England, Gregory Bateson goes quickly from being the youngest child to the sole surviving child of Bateson family, after the eldest son dies in the War and the middle son takes his own life in Picadilly Circus. Young Gregory steps it up, aims toward a more ambitious academic career as an anthropologist.

In the late 1940s. as America emerges from WW2, a wealthy maritime merchant family called Macy sponsors a series of interdisciplinary seminars in New York, charging participants with developing a new science of the mind. At the sixth of these conferences, held in 1949, Gregory Bateson and his wife Margaret Mead meet an Austrian scientist named Heinz von Foerster, on his first trip to America.

Together with the group they first decide on Nortbert Wiener’s term cybernetics to describe their new way of looking at consciousness. Von Foerster’s success at this conference will eventually earn him his first American academic post, here at Illinois in Electrical Engineering. His students will later unsuccessfully raise funds to bring Margaret Mead to campus.

Once here at Illinois, von Foerster starts the Biological Computer Lab, just about the same time that the Pentagon starts ARPA, the research wing that will eventually give us the Internet. Sputnik satellites are still sailing overhead, including one bearing the dogs Belka and Strelka, launched while the Automaton here was in its height of development. Back in England, Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who gave us our first image of DNA, dies from cancer within years of her big discovery. In 1965, Heinz von Foerster loses a son to a motorcycle accident in Nigeria.

In November of 1969, as Champaign Schools enter their first year as a racially integrated district, Michigan Senator Mike Mansfield successfully adds an amendment to the Military appropriations bill that severely limits Pentagon support of University projects. Funding for BCL projects starts to decline.

Later that Spring, BCL student John Day, an eventual contributor to the ARPANET project, steps out of a Student Union screening of the French film Z to see riot police on Green Street. 700 National Guardsmen surround campus in response to a series of fire-bombings. A student walkout achieves 90% participation, and Illinois loses a big contract for the supercomputer known as ILLIAC IV. Protesters claim victory against defense research, though even today, many claim the unrest merely provided an easy scapegoat for moving an already over-budget project.

In 1972, the National Science Foundation budget first hits 600 million. In one final push for funding, von Foerster and a group of BCL faculty submit a 1 million dollar proposal to research a “Citizen-Society Problem Solving Interface.” Their request is turned down. By 1974, Mai and Heinz von Foerster are making their plans to leave Urbana for California. They move to a house designed and built by their son, sited near Pescadero on Rattlesnake Hill, where they live for the rest of their lives, visited by countless friends from Urbana.

One Response to Sketching the Long View

  1. Can’t wait to see this next time I am in town Kevin. Looks great! Love the animal drawings.

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