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Two cultures and the consumers of complexity

Are we still two cultures?

In 1959, the scientist and author CP Snow gave a lecture entitled ‘Two Cultures’. CP Snow’s speech was about the failure of the humanities to understand scientific culture. This argued failure of the humanities persisted despite the dramatic effect of scientific culture on building the modern world. Snow said:

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

50 years later it is now clear that our society is a technocratic one and is complex in a way that it has never been before. This modern complexity reflects the fact that society depends on and benefits from extensive scientific understanding, exploited through technology. This knowledge pervades all areas of life. The results of scientific understanding can be seen in medicine, manufacturing, computers, communications technology, and of course the internet. However, the effects of scientific culture reach further than the manufacture of gadgets and pills. The mathematical analysis of our culture also increasingly affects decision-making and products and services offered to us as consumers. Nowadays scientific knowledge is just as likely to be used to try to influence how we make consumer choices as it is to help us to better understand the natural world. Not so long ago this task of attracting consumers was solely the job of ‘failed’ creatives. These were failed novelists who were reduced to working in advertising. Nowadays it is the job of technocrats.

The reach of science and modern complexity is not just seen through applications in technology and market analysis. In ‘pure’ science we are seeing continued advances in physics, biology, chemistry and the mathematics underlying them, which push themselves increasingly in to our private lives. Insurance companies vie to learn more about the individuals who wish to be insured as genetic research promises to sequence our genes and predict what we will die of and when. At the same time we see scientists gaining increasing access to our wallets. Huge sums of public money are invested in ‘pure’ research like CERN or the Rosetta mission. To add to this list of areas affected by scientific complexity, increasingly, mathematical models of the mind are becoming influential.

How are non-scientists, non-technocrats, or simply, non-geeks able to relate meaningfully to the forceful invasion of the ‘second’ culture or ‘modern complexity’ in every area of life?

The first response, it will be argued, is to understand why technological complexity is problematic, and this can be seen as a problem of hidden complexity. This means the systematic hiding and obscuring of this kind of complexity from every area of life. Hidden complexity means that we can consume modern technology as a service, yet also that we must acquiesce to decisions about science and technology that are made without us. We are more and more uninvolved. The reason for hiding complexity in the form of technology is simply so that we can consume the technology more easily; thus paying for the complexity in the process. It is argued by philosopher Albert Borgmann that this hidden complexity is in fact, a pervasive part of technological culture, which can be said to change the ‘contextual geography’ (my term) of our relations to each other, our locality and our environment.

Consuming Complexity

Much of the complexity of modern life is, therefore, hidden

from use for a very good, yet largely unplanned reason: So that we can productively use the results of complex processes, calculations and knowledge as services, and simply do more of what we like to do with these products. By using modern technology, we extend the reach of products and services to a wider and wider audience or market. One result of hidden complexity, however, is that more power shifts from the public consumer to corporate entities: As consumers we consume complex systems as services, yet as we understand them less, we must also participate less meaningfully in decisions about them.

Consider Google. We don’t know how the famous Google ‘Page Rank’ algorithm works, but we can use it very easily. Or consider advice from scientists in the news about our health. We don’t know how the scientific research was done, but we may assume that we can benefit from taking the advice. As Borgmann argues, we tend to ‘benefit’ from science and technologies simply by consuming it as a service. We claim that we don’t want to know how science and technology works, we just want them to work ‘for’ us, so that the ‘Means’ of technology are perceived as completely distinct from the ‘Ends’.

It is argued that there are actually deep philosophical questions about the role of technology in our lives which demand a nuanced response. Despite this, scientists, engineers and designers, so much in the ascendancy, often fail to understand that the questions they are seeking to answer with technological solutions involve assumptions about the role of technology that they choose to ignore, or fail to debate. Examples of scientific naivety lie in the fields of neuroscience and psychological research, where scientific research is backed by huge public funds, yet mainly fails to produce meaningful results. These questions were traditionally part of the role of the humanities and philosophy in particular. In these areas, profound philosophical questions about the way that knowledge is generated appear to be ignored or side-stepped in favour of a crude empirical methodology. This impacts the way we seek to research treatments of mental health problems for instance, and the way we relate as patients or clients to others in society.

It is also important to consider areas of political importance in which hidden complexity leads to even greater social cost: For instance, in financial services, regulators are tasked with a problem of protecting the global economy from crisis. It is common knowledge that the increased and intrinsic complexity of innovative financial instruments was partly to blame for the crash of 2008. Despite increases in regulation, the complexity of financial products still represents a huge challenge in managing the modern technocratic economy, and one that is arguably not being met. This failure of governments to regulate markets effectively, however, represents only perhaps the most egregious aspect of complexity in the modern age.

In some areas of public policy, profound distrust is also generated by shifting power relations. This can manifest itself in dramatically counter-productive and self-destructive ways. Climate change science is the main example of the ‘stress’ which takes place as different forms of complexity ‘rub-up’ against one another in the political sphere. The climate change deniers demonstrate both the failure to understand scientific process and method, and the failure of scientists to effectively make the complexity of their methods transparent. Like magicians who now struggle to reveal how the trick was done, climate change scientists often find they are unable to construct a media response that can be understood by the general public. The scientists fail to explain how science is actually performed - it is simply too complex to those without scientific training. The public, sensing their loss of power, react predictably to what is seen by many as an attempted coup over decisions that affect and curtail their freedom to consume. In a sense, we are witnessing in climate change politics the newest example of CP Snow’s cultural dichotomy. This dichotomy is different but also very similar to the way that CP Snow described in 1959. In this case, the two cultures operate using different kinds of complexity: Economic and geo-political versus physical or environmental. Like CP Snow’s dichotomy between science and the humanities, these two cultures also largely fail to understand one another, and so generally ‘talk past’ one another.

In later articles I will be discussing some of the potential solutions to these problems of communication between different cultures and forms of knowledge, and relating them to other kinds of problems of inter-disciplinary working and engagement. This also relates to how in modern society we expect to be able to innovate and use technology ‘well’.

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