Friday, May 8, 2009

The old and new versions of "culture war"

This month, we note the 50th Anniversary of C.P. Snow's famous Rede Lecture, "The Two Cultures," which described the wide and seemingly unbridgeable gulf of language, assumptions and mindset, between people working in the sciences and intellectuals in the literary arts and humanities.  In a a followup essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," Snow optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," might emerge and close the communications gap. In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists.

According to sci-tech book agent John Brockman ”This never happened. Although I borrowed Snow's phrase in my 1991 essay "The Third Culture", it does not describe the third culture he predicted.”   Indeed, Brockman portrays recent progress as more one-sided than any act of collaboration, with the bridging largely undertaken from the scientific side and most literary mavens playing the unhelpful role of cantankerous curmudgeons. 

”The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are. Increasingly, The Third Culture has moved into the mainstream and the questions it is asking are those that inform us about ourselves and the world around us.”

Speaking as someone who has moved across both of these worlds without impediment, all my life, I can say that Brockman is mostly right about this.  High-end scientists do tend to be vastly more agile and forward-looking thinkers, than their counterparts in almost any other field of endeavor.  Instead of narrowly-specialized “boffins,” those at the top of their fields seem to be smarter, more-broadminded and deeply curious than anyone else alive. The reason for this is so astonishingly simple that it seems to have escaped notice.  It has nothing to do with any intrinsic superiority of scientific minds.  Rather, suppose that a person is truly broadminded and eclectic, wanting to excel in a wide span of fields. He or she must thereupon choose the scientific field of interest to work hardest in, at the professional level, simply because science is exceptionally demanding.  That person's other interests, in contrast, can be pursued part-time.   Indeed, nearly all of the top scientists I’ve met (and I know many) also nurtured impressive artistic hobbies and passionate avocations, at near-professional levels.  They bridge the gap not as invaders from science but as brilliant people who never accepted the existence of any gap, in the first place!

Meanwhile, the intellectual curse of vapid, simpleminded postmodernism has been slow to dissipate from hundreds of university English, Literature and social studies departments.  One symptom of this obdurate troglodytism has been the refusal of all but a dozen U.S. universities to pay more than nodding attention to science fiction, the most exploratory and truly American of all genres.  Another diagnosable illness is the slavish devotion that so many have pledged to the rigid storytelling tropes that Joseph Campbell called “fundamental” to myth.  These rigid prescriptions may have been nearly ubiquitous for 4,000 years, but nobody seems willing to also point out the downside -- that those bardic straightjackets were also fundamentally debasing of the human imagination, helping to limit and crush our shared cultural experience... until we finally broke free of our chains.

And yet, having agreed with much of Brockman’s point, I do have to take some exception.  Because the literary types that he and Snow call the “first culture” are not really relevant to the intellectual problems of our age. Self-marginalized and generally silly, the literature profs are no more pertinent for their anti-science thetoric than they ever were a threat to young minds, by promoting “leftist memes.”  These were strawman foes, hardly even worth the time spent shrugging them off.

Then why talk about this cultural gap at all?  C.P. Snow had an excuse.  Especially in his day, the British education system was in large part designed to cauterize scientific or technical “boffins,” keeping them physically and intellectually isolated while ensuring that real power -- cabinet posts , corporate directorships and such -- would be preserved for those steeped in the classics. (Whereupon, completely subjective grading ensured that the sons of aristocracy would slip gracefully into the high positions set aside for them.)  Hence a nearly complete lack of “breadth requirements” in most British (indeed, European) baccalaureate programs. 

 Meanwhile, U.S. students take an extra fourth year longer for their bachelor’s degree, getting exposure across lateral horizons of interest.  This important feature of American academic life is seldom mentioned, even though it is an inherent expression of a very different intellectual worldview.

Hence, while American lit departments are only slowly awakening from their prickly, faux-European inferiority complex, others on campus have no problem embracing a new culture of change. At the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), for example, several arts departments have joined with scientific colleagues to forge Sixth College, and the Center for the Study of Computing in the Arts, dedicated to the mission of bridging every perceived gap, with tech-savvy artists and art-loving techies.  

No, in America the dangerous gap is not between CP Snow’s old archetype intellectual cultures.  Rather, what we are challenged by is a very different “culture war,” in which every kind of anti-intellectualism is fanned by those who most directly benefit from this put-up distraction.  One of the tools that help to maintain this debilitating chasm?  The metaphor of an obsolete and profoundly misleading, so-called “left-right political axis” -- a curse from 18th Century France that has been a lobotomizing political discourse for generations, focusing attention on a silly, almost meaningless “gap,” when the real chasm is much simpler -- between non-thieves and thieves.


Want to attend Worldcon? The World Science Fiction Convention is always a marvelous show and this year's event Anticipation -- in Montreal, city of fine food and hospitality -- should prove no exception with great panels, previews, the Hugo Awards and a special min-conference on teaching science fiction in the classroom that I labored to help create, along with the fine folks at www.AboutSF and Reading for the Future.  Alas, it seems my family won't be able to attend, this year, so we have worldcon memberships for sale!  (Three adults and one child, steeply discounted from the regular price.)  


 So cool In case you haven't already seen it -- the launch of a 1/10-scale model of a Saturn V rocket, built by hobbyists. I'd have been impressed if it used liquid hydrogen and multi stages.

 Inside These Lenses, a Digital Dimension -- now appearing... my “TruVu Specs”...  (Please do let me know when anybody spots more on this trend.  I have particular interest.)

 ELECTROMAGNETIC pulse weapons capable of frying the electronics in civil airliners can be built using information and components available on the net, warn counter-terrorism analysts. Yael Shahar, director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, and her colleagues have analysed electromagnetic weapons in development or used by military forces worldwide, and have discovered that there is low-cost equipment available online that can act in similar ways. "These will become more of a threat as the electromagnetic weapons technology matures," she says.  Douglas Beason, a director at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, says it may be straightforward to build a do-it-yourself EMP weapon, but more difficult to make one that can be stowed in an aircraft. 

 BTW - Beason is a Brin-pal. See my own suggested measure we should take, in order to solve this threat.

VisionCare Ophthalmic Technologies has developed a miniature telephoto lens that can be implanted into the eye and could soon help people with vision loss from end-stage macular degeneration. (VisionCare) Because only the central parts of the retina are damaged in the disease, magnifying the image on the eye allows the retinal cells.  

 Chris Phoenix of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology: ”I learned about research that is nearing completion to develop a strain of E. coli which cannot be infected by bacteriophages.  Phages are a major mechanism - likely *the* major mechanism - that keeps bacteria from growing out of control. A phage-proof bacterium might behave very similarly to "red tide" algae blooms, which apparently happen when an algae strain is transported away from its specialized parasites. But E. coli is capable of living in a wide range of environments, including soil, fresh water, and anaerobic conditions.  A virus-proof version, with perhaps 50% lower mortality, and (over time) less metabolic load from shedding virus defenses that are no longer needed, might thrive in many conditions where it currently only survives. The researchers doing this acknowledge the theoretical risk that some bacteria might become invasive, but they don't seem to be taking anywhere near the appropriate level of precaution. They are one gene deletion away from creating the strain.”  Church's recent article describing the possible future benefits of his work, and possible future safety precautions."

Oh, think it’s time for bold amateur sci fi television?
Cool stuff on Stranger Things TV.

No comments:

Post a Comment