Consuming Complexity and Culture 3.1
Updated: Dec 28, 2019
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. Today 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.
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 ‘PageRank’ 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 C P Snow’s cultural dichotomy. This dichotomy is different but also very similar to the way that C P 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.
Contextual Geography and Scientific and technological changes
We can seek to better understand modern complexity by describing how scientific and technological change affects the ‘contextual geography’ of our lives. Science and technology can be said to consist of extending the boundaries of the ‘replicable experience’ so that more and more contexts in nature are understood. Each natural context or ‘domain’ falls first under the domain of scientific knowledge and then under technological control. The honing of new products and services including medicine and all other areas of technological application rely on a certain type of feedback from ‘nature’ and the replicability of that feedback in those natural contexts. Only experiments and tests that are replicable can be developed using the scientific method and the same process is undergone in terms of the testing and evaluation of new products and complex services.
As services and products are improved the context in which they are operable increases and they also usually become more and more available. As consumers, the result is most often the ubiquitous experience of consuming a reliably replicable, commoditised service or product. These changes are described by the philosopher Borgmann in the book “Technology and the character of contemporary life: A philosophical inquiry”. Borgmann’s argument involves the claim that in analysing the characteristics of technological change and economic growth, one can discern clear drawbacks to these changes which are innate in the concept of technological progress.
Borgmann referred to the craft of the ‘wheelwright’ who would know how to select wood from the right trees based on the season and shape of the tree. This knowledge made the wheelwright a master of his or her craft. However, this craft became virtually obsolete as technological change removed the need for this sort of knowledge to reliably produce pieces of carpentry or joinery for transportation. As the pace of technological change increases so the ‘contextual geography’ of our social relations and relation to locality and our environment inevitably changes, too.
Describing this process and recognising the pattern becomes even more important when seeking to understand change due to the increasing exploitation and delivery of digital resources to solve problems.
Economics and humanistic complexity
It is not argued that technology is simply a ‘Bad Thing’. From an economic perspective innovation is essential to economic growth. Clearly, technology must have positive effects through the increased availability of products and services. Arguably, therefore technology reliably serves economic ends of greater and more widespread consumption pulling countless individuals out of poverty. The urgent task, however, is to recognise the danger of a loss of control and awareness of the more subtle, negative effects of technology. The argument is that we need to distinguish between the positive and the negative with greater clarity. Of a piece with this, we need to better identify ‘humanistic complexity’ which as human beings we enjoy tackling and mastering and which reflects an environment with a richer contextual geography. This can be contrasted with less humanistic forms of complexity which tend to be created by the increasing use of more technological solutions to tasks and challenges. The central claim made is that there is a cost to technological innovation which is subtle but also pervasive and pernicious. This is a real and in itself almost unavoidable, human cost to technological progress which can be studied and better understood. Its effects become clearer as technology progresses. This effect can perhaps be summarised as the creation of a more impoverished contextual geography as described by Borgmann.
Culture 3.1 – The Revealing of Hidden Complexity in the Everyday
‘Culture 3.1’ is the idea of looking to the public and especially to artists, philosophers and those conversant in the humanities (Culture ‘1.0’?) to seek to engage meaningfully in a clearer vision of the changing complexity of modern, everyday life. This involves looking into and questioning technological solutions and patterns of change in the contextual geography of our lives. It means becoming more aware of the political, personal and intellectual consequences of complex scientific knowledge that is being constructed ‘on our behalf’. The idea is also to provoke a shift of consciousness to become disrupters of the passive consumer relationship between technology and the rest of us and the ‘collapsers’ of cultural dichotomies. Instead of simply consuming complexity we should seek to understand better and adapt the complexity consumption relationship. We should also seek to understand the clash of cultures as a clash of complexities. The loss of certain, desirable, more ‘human’ complexities of a pre-technological age that Borgmann writes about reflect the loss of more human complexities in society. But, these are not things to simply lament. Instead, this is something to recognise and try to meaningfully redress in a modern way using a contemporary analysis of the problem.
Contextual Geography and the Humanities in Culture 3.1
One might question what role the humanities could really have in a Culture 3.1. As has been mentioned, the arts and humanities create their own ‘contextual geography’ and their own complexities. They do this by operating at the limits of what is reliably replicable in direct opposition in this sense, to the sciences. The humanities are interested in the unique; the results of historical processes, and the humanity which is displayed by tackling challenges in uniquely human ways. This can be seen in terms of the level of performance in the performing arts the level of originality and ‘timeliness’ of creative artistic work, or in terms of the quality and value of intellectual effort. Much work in the arts and humanities operates at the limits of what can be reproduced routinely. This is not to say that artists in particular, are unaware of the ironic relation between mechanical and obvious replicability and efficient consumption in art. Andy Warhol, by establishing his studio ‘The Factory’, of course, pioneered the mimicking of the industrial production process in art. Since the emergence of post-modernism, much of the interesting components of modern art and critical thinking have sought to explore the relationship between art and the mechanical production of consumer goods and services in capitalist culture. Culture 3.1 argues for the arts and humanities to speak to modern technological forms of complexity and, as the playwright Tom Stoppard attempts, to challenge ignorance of these debates and research programs. It also needs the humanities to reveal the human aspects of complexity consumption and the assumptions that underlie it. It is argued that the modern clash of complexities of the two cultures should become the subject of modern art and philosophy as a humanistic study of complexity. It is argued that this is necessary if the arts are to engage meaningfully in a modern, technocratic, capitalist, consumer culture.
Borgmann, Albert (2009) Technology and the character of contemporary life: A philosophical inquiry. University of Chicago Press.
Puech, Michel "BEYOND DIGITAL LITERACY: TECHNOLOGICAL WISDOM FOR THE GOOD LIFE." http://michel.puech.free.fr/docs/2014cepe.pdf
Puech, Michel (2010) “The Four Cultures: Hybridizing Science and Humanities, East and West”. In Center for Applied Ethics and Philosophy (ed.), Applied Ethics: Challenges for the 21st Century., Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan. 27--35.
Snow, Charles Percy (1959) The Rede Lecture 1959. Cambridge University Press. Stoppard, Tom (2015) The Hard Problem. Faber and Faber.