Now that’s a lousy title, so let me kick things off by immediately clarifying what I’m talking about. This isn’t academia, or the world of contending theories and thirty-page papers on the finer points of psychopharmacolgy in relation to the mating habits of the Atlantic bluefin tuna. While this kind of world certainly does exist, it’s not what we’re talking about here. This is the culture not so much of scientists, as it is of science fans: those who are becoming increasingly invested in the idea that advancements in our knowledge is not only inherently awesome, but the solution to many, if not most or all, of the world’s problems.
“But Gordon, you striking portrait of wisdom and nobility,” you may be asking, “don’t we all fit that category?”
And to some extent, yes, we do. Even the most hardcore Luddite or primitivist will applaud the polio vaccine or HIV medication, but even so, there is a growing number of people who take things to the next level entirely. Check out this trailer:
Kind of a crazy premise- guy transfers his consciousness into a machine body. But still not too far off from the way many people believe we’ll eventually be living. “Transhumanism”, they call it, which, to grossly simplify it, is the general idea that the best (or even inevitable) course of human existence is to “evolve” beyond the confines of our biology. That with the progression of science and technology we’ll stop the effects of aging and be capable of improving upon our own minds and bodies. If you wanted to find a decent illustration of this kind of issue, try watching Battlestar Galactica (the new ones), or better still, Caprica. Now this is an extreme element of this culture, but a contributing element nonetheless. Major advances in prosthetics over the years, as well as films such as Surrogates, Gamer, Avatar, The Matrix, I, Robot (heck, any film or media dealing with the whole “what makes a person a person?” question) have all been instrumental in introducing transhumanist ideas. But of course, it’s more than just that.
It also has a lot to do with these guys:
These guys right here are arguably responsible for popularizing this entire culture, breaking down even dry subjects and making them compelling and (relatively) easy to grasp, even if only on the most basic level. You probably won’t go off to revolutionize the world of astrophysics after a few episodes of Cosmos, but chances are you’ll come away amazed. Would the recent Mars landing have had the same widespread popularity as it did without these guys? Would the cutting of manned space-missions have been met with the same outrage? Almost certainly not.
To some extent, the decline of religious adherence in the West may also be a factor in this culture. A growing number of individuals in the US are simply reporting themselves as being “without religion,” and the “science culture’s” emphasis on altruistic humanism (more on that in a minute) and skepticism offer a sympathetic atmosphere. The fact that many leaders (or at least, poster boys) for the culture are atheist (Mythbusters’ Savage and Hyneman, for example) or agnostic (Neil Degrasse Tyson) is also certainly a factor.
And perhaps the most fundamental element of all in this culture is the concept of “post-scarcity.” Quite simply, it’s the idea that we have progressed to a point where we no longer have scarcity of resources. E-books are typically used as an example, with adherents of the idea pointing out that with almost everything ever written in human history accessible in digital form, we could potentially give access to everything ever written to every man, woman, and child who will ever live without ever cutting down a single tree. The same logic is applied to film and music as well.
All of this combined creates and fuels a culture based ultimately on values of human welfare. In many respects, it’s the polar opposite of the “manly” culture discussed last week, emphasizing interdependence rather than independence, cooperation rather than competition, and progressive and postmodern social norms rather than traditional ones.
So what are the pros and cons of the culture?
- The fundamentally altruistic and humanistic elements of the culture are certainly something to be admired.
- Money goes into scientific research, and cures and advancements come out; you can explain that.
- Quite simply, the idea that we, as individuals and societies “aren’t done yet” creates a great atmosphere for experimentation, advancement, and general optimism about our conditions.
- We could talk about playing God and paternalistic big-government and all that, but ultimately, the issue of the “science culture” is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way things actually are in the world. While it’s certainly true that there’s enough to go around, we simply aren’t a “post-scarcity” world. The vast majority of the planet is desperately poor, and their needs have to be met. The culture’s basic tenets also have the issue of seeming to assume that science is the answer to everything- that we can maintain our (general) levels of consumption and simply have our decadence off-set by the latest, greatest advance in clean energy. Now even if you assert that our problems can be solved by a use of technology to give us a surplus of everything we could ever possibly need, the same fact of the matter is that those technologies do not yet exist. The entire outlook is, quite simply, utopian, and while optimism should be applauded, it desperately needs to be tempered with realism.
And that’s it for today- be sure to check out Tuesday’s “Shame Day” post, and check in next time for our look at “internet/free information culture.”