About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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January 5, 2004

Cubism, Camouflage, and Cultural Change

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Posted by Zack Lynch

What do Picasso, a French telephone operator, and the British navy have in common?

Each used cubist-painting techniques to make objects in a field of vision appear to be equal in distance with their background. In doing so, they forever changed how people perceive space and also invented camouflage in the process.

While the Picasso made his breakthrough to Cubism in 1907, it wasn't until 1914 that Guirand de Scevola conceived of camouflage. Working as a telephone operator for a French artillery unit, de Scevola (a painter himself) realized that there was a way to conceal artillery guns using a net splashed with earth colors in a cubist manner. Quickly adopted by the French army, it took three more years for the British navy to devise a way of painting the sides of ships with geometric patterns to make them more difficult for German u-boat captains to judge a ship's distance and speed when looking at it through a periscope.

As Stephen Kern points out in The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918, this example is not only intellectually interesting, but yields a deep insight into the nature of societal change. "In cultural histories the causal arrow usually runs from technology to culture. In the case of cubism and camouflage, however, it went the other way, from cubist art to war technology."

I am now entering the third year of researching and writing my book on Neurotechnology and Society. Having spent the first year exploring the underlying technologies and last year envisioning the political and economic impacts of neurotechnology, the end is in view.

My primary focus is now on art and culture. As the above example highlights -- even though technology is a primary initiator of change, it also operates within the walls of political and cultural contexts not completely of its making. Given this fact, I am sure that the thoughts uncovered over the next few months will provide further evidence of our emerging neurosociety.

I look forward to sharing my journey and complete vision with you in 2004.

Comments (4) | Category: Neuroesthetics


1. Christine Dobbin on March 2, 2004 7:17 AM writes...

I am an art student at the Glasgow School of Art and i have chosen to write my dissertation on the way the brain reacts to art. I find your point about camoflage very interesting and am keen on finding out more about the way the brain is trained to regognise things that are camoflaged, similar to prehistoric days when man was hunting looking for camoflaged prey. Our brains are trained to hunt through a piece of art for the disguised image, it is almost enjoyable and soothing, like a magic eye picture. Proffessor Rammochan discusses cultural diversity and universal laws in his lecture ' The Artful Brain'; is this hunt through the camoflage a universal law? I keenly await your reply and if you could recommend any specific reading or websites I would be most greatful.
yours sincerly,

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2. Allen L. Lee on March 2, 2004 9:53 PM writes...

I am currently working in several high schools in California on behalf of a musuem which is doing an outreach project to get students to present valuable family artifacts and stories. The motivation is to get students to understand and appreciate musuem collections and the stories behind them. A motto I have is for students to respect diversity and recognize commonality. The diversity is in the realm of cultural bias and the commonality is explored through subjective art and emotional communication. It's good to read some validation for my approach and so far the approach is successful. I look forward to reading more from this site,
Allen L. Lee

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3. Sven Gerrets on April 3, 2004 2:41 PM writes...

Currently at work at my endpaper for the University of Amsterdam about Cubism in cinema. No neurlogy here, but I'm very interested in your work none the less. Makes for an interesting new approach/chapter.

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4. Mike Orton on August 2, 2004 2:53 AM writes...

Visit my website to find out more about me.

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