Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Two Cultures Redux

C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures reflected upon the great divide between science and the humanities, and criticized educational systems for rewarding the study of the humanities at the expense of science.  This was the late 1950's and in the Sputnik era it widely resonated.  Fast forward to today.  Could Snow have imagined cars that drive themselves, and tiny, powerful computers that also serve as phones, cameras, GPS systems, radar enhanced weather reports, and Facebook, Twitter and email on the go?

More significant than this amazing hardware and software, is we've become a culture of scientism and algorithms, sliding down the slippery slope of relinquishing our actions and moral judgments.   Two recent articles address these issues, well worth reading, and pondering. The first by Leon Wieseltier, "Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture" A Defense of the Humanities, is actually the commencement address to Brandeis University graduates.  Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic and he addressed the graduates as "fellow humanists." He makes so many interesting points; here are just some of the salient ones:

      The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep

     And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists,  in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control. 

    Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic

Steven Poole's Slaves to the Algorithm in Aeon Magazine addresses the question of whether there is still a place for human judgment as computers make choices on our behalf.  He paints a dystopian picture of where things are going, culture itself being impacted as "we erect algorithms as our ultimate judges and arbiters."

     What lies behind our current rush to automate everything we can imagine? Perhaps it is an idea that has leaked out into the general culture from cognitive science and psychology over the past half-century — that our brains are imperfect computers. If so, surely replacing them with actual computers can have nothing but benefits. Yet even in fields where the algorithm’s job is a relatively pure exercise in number- crunching, things can go alarmingly wrong.