Two Cultures in 2016

In 1959, the British scientist and politician C.P. Snow delivered a lecture about the rift between the sciences and the humanities: he observed that many scientists tend not to be literate in the humanities, and vice-versa. Snow suggested that this lack of common ground, and the consequent lack of communication, was one of the great obstacles to solving the world’s problems.

In 2016, Snow’s lecture remains as relevant as it was then. However, globalization and the explosion of technology have changed the landscape of the discussion. In developed nations, many of the traditional blue-collar jobs (mining, manufacturing, etc.) have been ceded either to robots or to workers in other nations. Vast swathes of entry-level white-collar jobs have disappeared similarly: tasks that once required rooms full of workers on typewriters are now handled by software. It is thus no surprise that many young people feel a job anxiety that their parents did not — even though the young people of today are the best educated generation yet.[0] Rates of attainment of higher education have gone through the roof, but regrettably, so has the cost of college. Many young graduates have been saddled with enormous student debts, causing them to question not only the value of their degree, but also the value of their field of study.

In this context, the rift between the two cultures comes up again. Especially as the disparities between entry-level salaries/job prospects by college major seem to widen every year[1], the media parades the story of the under-30 tech billionaire, and popular culture is rife with snide (and often self-deprecating) jokes about the relationship between an English degree and working at Starbucks, many people find themselves weighing the sciences against the humanities in one way or another. The entire matter is different than it was back in Snow’s day, mostly because it is now cast in economic terms. To Snow, it was a matter of education policy to a political end: the gap between the sciences and the humanities had to be bridged in order to effectively govern the modern world. To today’s students, it is chiefly a financial matter: college is expensive, job security is not guaranteed, and some fields of study appear vastly more lucrative than others.

This kind of austere thinking is not just held by individuals, but also by governments and institutions. School funding was widely slashed during the great recession, and hasn’t recovered since.[2] Of course, when a school’s budget is cut, the first departments to take hits are usually the arts and humanities.[3] Altogether, a pseudo-economic argument has been leveled against studying or teaching the arts and humanities: they’re expensive and produce results of dubious economic value. They have to justify their existence, and the sciences don’t.

I think that is a naive and extraordinarily dangerous notion. I will now try to disarm it by illustrating the value of the arts and humanities specifically in the context of the sciences.

Fundamentally, science is about creating and organizing knowledge by means of measurement and experimentation. In education, the STEM fields are about developing tools to measure and manipulate the world around us — technology.[4] On the other hand, the arts and humanities are chiefly about interpreting the world around (and including) us.

The key observation is that all technology is inherently value-neutral. Nuclear energy, tableware, and linear regression are all inert abstractions until we choose to use them, and then it is the way in which we choose to use them that carries ethical weight: the tool itself is always neutral.[5] The way in which we choose to use a tool is a moral/ethical decision ultimately made with reference to our values, which are informed by the fields that focus on interpreting existence and pondering the human condition. Occasionally we use scientific tools to make choices, but the decision to use such a tool, again, comes down to a prior, value-based decision. Thus, choices about using technology always ultimately come down to our feelings and perceptions, which are informed by the arts and humanities.[6]

Current political discourse shows such choices being made. At the time of writing, there is a heated debate over whether or not Apple should unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the deceased perpetrators of the San Bernadino shooting.[7] It is clear that the topics of privacy and surveillance will continue to be hotly contested, especially as with further technological progress, the tools for strengthening surveillance will become more powerful. So far, the debate is drawn along ideological lines, with few concessions being made by either side. A cause for this is that it’s a highly interdisciplinary issue with enormous consequences, some of them rather subtle, and there have been few debaters able to communicate across the different disciplines involved. This underscores that we need people who deeply understand the technical as well as social/political implications of positions, i.e. who comfortably straddle both the sciences (technological growth, computer security) and the humanities (law, ethics), and can think about the future. After all, the real political consequences of any kind of surveillance law do not occur today, but years from now, as the legal/cultural precedent will justify the use of progressively more powerful and invasive tools. There are currently very few people who can credibly claim this level of interdisciplinary expertise. We need more.

Elsewhere on the technological spectrum, ethical qualms regarding Virtual and Augmented Reality are beginning to draw more serious attention as these technologies approach wide-scale release.
It used to be the case that engineering, outside of the military context, wasn’t seen as an ethically charged industry. In recent years, however, that has changed. Number theory, once considered purely theoretical and totally inapplicable, has given rise to computational cryptography, and become one of the pillars of the internet. Statistical tools to analyze high-dimensional data, previously applied only in arcane contexts, are now employed to predict human behavior, and thereby form the backbone of modern advertising. Even video game design has become more controversial since the rise of freemium gaming.

The tools and toys available to us now are very powerful, and we continue to develop greater ones yet, at an ever-accelerating pace. We’ve seen examples of the legal system hard pressed to keep up with technological innovation. A perfect example is Uber, which is now valued well above $60 billion, and present in hundreds of cities globally — three years ago, it was not. Legislators all over the world have been caught off guard, with several previous conceptions totally upended: in the U.S., many are still debating whether Uber drivers are employees or contractors. With reference to potentially more controversial innovation, it is obvious that engineers and architects of technology need to apply good judgement moving forward, lest we find ourselves overwhelmed by things too powerful for us to handle. I posit that the arts and humanities are essential for supplying that judgement. Furthermore, not only do the arts and humanities inform the ways we use individual technologies, they lend meaning to the greater-scale societal progress that technology enables. Technology has given remarkable wealth to some groups of people, and how to deal with the consequent wealth inequality is being fiercely debated in many countries. With automation, we’re seeing human labor become less essential, and it’s becoming apparent that within the next few decades, people will generally find themselves better-connected, with fewer existential challenges and more free time. Again, the question of how to use those gifts is a humanistic one.[8] In this respect, a humanities or broad liberal-arts education — meant to teach critical, analytic thinking, and engage students with questions about the human experience, does not seem like a bad idea. But higher education is currently expensive, often crushingly so. There’s a student loan crisis. Thus, many people make the aforementioned pseudo-economic argument: Marco Rubio, when pressed on the issue of student loans, called for more welders and fewer philosophers.[9] But the problem is not that the liberal arts are somehow not worthwhile, the problem is that the price of education has ballooned over the past few decades (notably, the real cost of education has not grown similarly).[10] The point should be that the price of education has gone out of control, and needs to be reined in to manageable levels. People like Rubio, unwilling to address that underlying problem, are instead recommending learning a trade or a STEM field. This common suggestion dangerously reframes the debate away from the fundamental issue. Rubio’s suggestion also creates a vision of an uncomfortable intellectual disparity: a world wherein careful study of the humanities is (self-)restricted to a particular class, while everyone else toils with engineering matters (and by the law of supply and demand, I’m not convinced that these people would, in aggregate, be much better off than before). To conclude: thinking about the value of the arts and humanities in first-order terms like jobs created or salaries (as some think about the sciences) is the wrong approach. I’ve tried to show that the arts and humanities crucially lend value to technology, and meaning to our progress as a society. Beyond that, I think that quasi-exponential technological growth is more or less ensured as we move into the future. What’s not ensured is us using the fruits of that progress in an intelligent or constructive manner. For that reason, we need more people thinking critically about ethics, design, philosophy of law, etc. Civilization is built on tools as well as on ideas. The central point of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures is more relevant than ever before: the gap between the sciences and the humanities must be bridged in order to govern our world responsibly. Follow me on Twitter. [1] It’s hard to find good data on this. Here are some places to start: I did not find data that compared entry-level incomes by major over time, but I’m under the strong impression that the entry-level income disparity is a relatively recent phenomenon, starting with the yuppies in the 1980s. I would be strongly interested if anyone had any data on this. For further reading on this topic, see Paul Graham’s essay Refragmentation. [4] Noting that technology can be tangible, like a physical machine, or intangible, like knowledge of a technique or process. For example, a measuring cup is a form of technology, just as are the Navier-Stokes equations for describing fluid motion. [5] There’s an argument to be made here about how certain tools lend themselves more easily to some applications than others, and that these applications translate to some ethical value. For example: if you are opposed to the use of animal products, such as milk, then you may be ethically opposed to the development of milk machines (which really only serve that one purpose). For what it’s worth, I don’t think this argument holds in general. Examples for this argument are always circumstantial as for any tool, its potential applications change (occasionally vastly) over time. Besides that, probabilistically calculating the ethical value of applications of a technology over the search space of the future seems infeasible — you’d have to settle for some kind of$n$th order approximation, and there is no choice of$n\$ that seems significantly more defensible than any other.

[6] For a sufficiently broad definition of arts and humanities: e.g. I include study of religious scripture in the humanities.

[7] This is in part so contested because this decision will probably set a legal/cultural precedent.

[8] If it seems to you that the question of how is not a humanistic one, and is more answerable from a strict scientific point of view, then I suggest you ask yourself why you think so, and dig a little deeper — you will probably arrive at some sort of fundamental value or belief that you hold, which I would categorize as a humanities position. Note that this argument extends to the overarching point of the piece: technology is a neutral tool, and its value to us depends entirely on how we choose to use it. The how is, to a significant extent, a humanities question.

[10] The real cost of education has not grown commensurately with the price of college tuition insofar as the price increases in college tuition have been accompanied by administrative bloat and other spending, while class sizes have largely remained the same and professors don’t make significantly more than before. In fact, many classes are now taught by notoriously underpaid adjunct professors. On the rise of college prices, here’s a graphic and a Forbes article.