Tag Archives: futurist

“Science” Culture

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, GamerAvatar, 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?

Positives:

  • 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.

Negatives:

  • 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.”

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Culture, Not Criteria

Earlier today Evan sent me a link to a documentary on YouTube dealing with the subject of “hacktivists,” or more specifically, the rise of internet mischief and mayhem group “Anonymous.” For the most part, the movie was decent enough, though of course it wasn’t without its own agenda and a there are a few misconceptions resulting from that. But this post isn’t going to be a review. Rather, it’s going to launch off from an interesting phenomena I saw throughout the documentary- and that was the way people talked about Anonymous.

See, whenever people talk about the group, they usually have to veer off into a parenthetical speech where they try to explain just exactly who these guys are, and how at the same time they can be anybody, because anybody can be “Anonymous.” The end result is that they wind up sounding like a paranoid schizophrenic or conspiracy theorist, and the explanation itself doesn’t sound all that believable. After all, how can any individual or group take on the mantle and conduct whatever hacking or pranking or ranting they do against their enemies without some leadership? How do they do anything if they have no demands or agenda?

The problem here (and elsewhere, but we’ll get to that in a minute) is that a completely wrong lens is being used to look at the group. People are looking for structure or goals- the two things that usually define any collection of people, and that’s where it falls apart. Anonymous isn’t a group, it’s an idea. It’s a culture.

Now that sounds strange, but bear with me here.

What’s a conservative?

You probably have an image in your head right now. You can probably tell me what a conservative would think about a certain issue, or how he or she would act in a certain scenario, or the general value system one might have, but if I really pushed you for criteria, my guess is that you wouldn’t be able to give me one. After all- there are varying ideas of “conservatism,” and no real defined boundaries. You’ll find conservatives who state that the “religious extremists” have a skewed view of conservative values, and those same extremists offer the exact same criticism of those wimpy fiscal conservatives. Regardless of the specifics, once you stand back, both groups do fit neatly into the category of “conservative.”

Now apply the same general lens to Anonymous.

What’s “Anonymous”? It’s not a group with an ideology- it’s an ideology with a group, or rather, a whole bunch of groups. Consensus isn’t made through secretive discussion boards or by a clandestine collective of angry computer-geeks. Consensus isn’t made at all- actions simply stem from a general set of perspectives and ideas (the most major of which is freedom of speech and opposition to censorship) held by the adherents. Anonymous doesn’t exist as a coherent, structured group anymore than any culture or subculture exists as a coherent, structured group. Sure you’ve got your major players, and you’ve got various projects or movements within, but at the end of the day, there’s no list of demands, just a set of values.

The reason I bring this up is that this kind of organic organization is becoming more and more prevalent in our culture, the most notable example perhaps being the “Occupy Movement.” Critics of the movement, in its early days, continually parroted the protest of “But what do they want?“- the issue with that being that there was no, and never could be, any list of demands. Occupy wasn’t a structured or unified group- it was, like Anonymous is, a culture. A massive number of people sharing (and developing) certain common perspectives and values and then taking actions based on those views (those actions further developing those views, and so on ad infinitum). Trying to get demands out of Occupy protestors would’ve been about as fruitful as trying to get demands out of conservatives. You’re going to get conflicting specifics, even if there is a general set of guiding principles.

And of course, there are others out there. Though there’s no real term or name for it yet, there’s a rising “Manly” culture, comprised of elements of survivalists, masculinists, and guys who debate each other on-line about how to build porches and properly maintain classic muscle cars. Now I can’t claim to know the origin of this- perhaps it’s partly a reaction against our increasing dependence on technology, perhaps it stems from our powerlessness in a time of political and economic hardship- but either way, it is a growing culture based in principals of independence, self-sufficiency, self-control.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the general philosophies and ideas of the trans-humanists, futurists, utopians, geeks, nerds, and people who worship the ground Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson walk on. Those who view technology as being the solution to most, if not all, human ills, and eagerly await the day when you can get a free jet-pack when you go in for your cancer vaccine.

Now why bring any of this up?

Because it’s important.

We’re currently breaking away from the liberal/conservative paradigm, and we’re going to need to understand what else is out there. This isn’t to say that we’ve only had conservative and liberal cultures- that simply isn’t true. But we can’t deny that there has been, over the past decade, developments of new value-systems which are really neither here nor there. New and alternative views for what the world ought to be, and how you ought to be in it. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on dissecting these various concepts, so be sure to stop by next Monday for my examination of “Manly” culture.