Saturday, September 29, 2007

Two cultures

When I was a young man, a widely-read little book by the British scientist and novelist C P Snow presented a dichotomous vision of contemporary intellectuals. On the one hand, there were those with a scientific education and preoccupations. On the other, there were traditional intellectuals concerned by the humanities (literature, philosophy, history, etc). Snow coined the striking expression "two cultures" to designate this breakdown. He claimed that the existence of this dichotomy constituted a fundamental barrier in the quest for harmonious and universal solutions to society's problems.

Personally, I first became aware of this phenomenon when certain people expressed surprise at the fact that I should wish to study both mathematics and philosophy, simultaneously, at university. Much later, at the research service of the French Broadcasting System, I had the privilege of working with Pierre Schaeffer, a splendid innovator in multidisciplinary thinking. But I still came upon colleagues who found it strange, for example, that a computing professional such as me might be interested in the linguistics of Noam Chomsky. (Today, of course, most people would no longer find this strange, because they know that computers exploit languages such as Basic and Java.)

The planetary success of the personal computer and the Internet has narrowed the gap, I think, between "cultivated folk" (in the old-fashioned sense) and "technical people" (who know how to write programs, for example). Besides, many ordinary individuals know that science—through disciplines such as cosmology, genetics and neurophysiology—has much to say (if not everything) about human beings and the world in which we exist. So, only an exceptionally reactionary observer would cling to the notion of a giant cleavage between science and traditional culture. Even the antiquated separation between science and philosophy has practically disappeared... and old-fashioned religion is slowly paying the price of increased scientific enlightenment. What I'm hinting at, in that last statement, is that it's becoming more and more intellectually difficult to maintain the beliefs of traditional religions.

In the midst of our new "computer culture", I often hear people on TV complaining that addiction to modern machines such as computers and portable phones is having an adverse effect upon a certain aspect of traditional culture: namely, the ability to spell correctly and to write in a grammatically correct fashion. Yesterday, for example, a well-spoken French fellow, employed in some kind of a stock-market job, explained in a TV interview that young people like himself communicate so rapidly and so profusely today, using computers and portable phones, that they tend to disregard such niceties as spelling and well-structured sentences. Now, this might be true as far as text messages and chat forums on the Internet are concerned, but I think we should relativize things before making global generalizations about the alleged negative effects of modern communications systems. In particular, it's ridiculous to suggest that there might be any kind of paucity in spelling and literary expression in the vast domain of what we might refer to as encyclopedic websites, characterized above all [but not exclusively, by any means] by Wikipedia. Here, on the contrary, all the is are dotted, all the ts are crossed, and every comma counts. Everything is rigorous, striving towards informational completeness and perfection. The web, at this level, is not a place for fast facts à la McDonald's.

Maybe the antiquated "two cultures" expression might be resurrected usefully in a modern context. On the one hand, there are the speedy youngsters, using portable phones and chat forums, who don't give a damn about spelling or expression, as long as their many muddy messages get through. On the other hand, there are the countless great web authors who are engaged in the passionate challenge of installing humanity's history and intellectual heritage on the Internet. It is normal that these two "cultures" should coexist, but it would be idiotic to confuse these two totally different preoccupations. One is a culture of immediate facility; the other, a culture of ageless wisdom. And the actors, in each of these two cultures, are not at all the same.

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