On October 3, at the start of National Arts & Humanities Month, the White House invited thousands of people to come celebrate the intersection of science, art, politics and technology at its first ever SXSL (South by South Lawn) event.
Music was everywhere, both inside and outside the White House. Between live music acts, visitors could hear everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Outkast. The dress code was eclectic—Converse sneakers, t-shirts, suits, formal dresses, and everything in between.
Panelists and speakers in the afternoon talked about innovation and change, access to opportunity and how activists and tech companies solve real-world problems.
There were tents with interactive demonstrations. Mobile apps let you imagine what it is like to sentence crimes and to compare your decision to the one that was actually handed down. You could quickly see how imbalanced and extreme prison sentencing can be.
By putting on an augmented reality headset, you could experience how graphics and data can be used in a real-life setting to make hands-on factory work safer and more efficient.
You could experience the maddening isolation of solitary confinement using virtual reality.
Designers showed off the web sites and apps they have developed for the VA and other agencies. They are successfully designing better digital tools for use across communities and throughout the government.
These projects are actively improving the lives of many who work and live in this country.
As the sun set, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, President Obama, and Leonardo DiCaprio discussed the problems climate change is bringing about.
Hayhoe has dedicated her life to studying complex climate data to understand what is happening on this planet. While she knows the value of in-depth work, she realizes that without effectively communicating her findings, change will not happen.
One of the most important points that Hayhoe and President Obama made was that most Americans don’t have the day-to-day ability to solve global problems; they may value the environment, but when they’re struggling and are faced with issues like how to feed their family and pay rent, they have their hands full.
An example: It’s easy for people in poor communities to run to the corner store and grab a bag of chips and a soda. Grocery stores with healthy food are not common in many of these communities, and these people lack the time and know-how to prepare healthy meals. They may want to feed their families good, nutritious food, but find it difficult to do so consistently.
You may not think what a poor person is offered to eat has a global environmental impact, but collectively, these behaviors impact every single one of us. Whether it’s the unethical way some ingredients are produced, or the negative impact on health that these foods cause, the effects add up and are felt economically, socially and culturally.
The above is a very complex—and sometimes abstract—story.
A good storyteller, however, can do something that a scientist is not trained for: they are able to use their medium to invoke feeling. They may inspire people who have better means to understand the problem, to care and to design a solution to make it right.
We will never feel the need to fix problems we do not understand.
DiCaprio is an accomplished actor and filmmaker. In speaking about issues outside the entertainment industry, he’s been criticized for not being a scientist. His latest work, however, reveals that he has made a solid effort to do his homework.
As the sun went down, a large screen on the South Lawn showed “Before the Flood,” a troubling documentary that DiCaprio stars in. The film shows very explicitly what is happening to our planet.
DiCaprio is uniquely qualified to bring this story to the general population. Our culture values our celebrities—our greatest storytellers. He can fairly easily go to exotic places, where the average person cannot. People around the world recognize and welcome him. He also understands the power of film as a storytelling medium—and here he is using his art and advantage for more than just entertainment.
The film shows us these problems and then asks that we come together to help solve them.
He didn’t just tell us; he took us there and showed us.
We are a very visual culture. What we see becomes a part of who we are.
We need to teach creativity and problem solving to everyone—scientists, medical professionals, parents, politicians, teachers, and engineers.
We need arts literacy so that everyone can look at a piece of media or art not only to appreciate it, but to think critically about it.
We need people who are experts in visual communication, music, performance, dance and storytelling. We need to support these forms of communication so that artists continue to make work that helps us reflect on, question and better ourselves.
Art helps tell us stories about social justice, shows us our imperfections, points out where there is suffering, reveals where there is corruption, leads us to understanding, offers us beauty and helps us to solve problems. Art helps us feel; we are creatures that aspire to be logical, but more often, are driven by what we feel.
This is why the arts matter so much.
When the arts are used to connect the work being done on the edge of science, government, and technology, this is how change begins. This is the sense that the first SXSL inspired in many of those who attended.