TCS Daily

Healing the Two-Cultures Split

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 4, 2002 12:00 AM

Over forty years ago, C.P. Snow warned of an increasing gap between two cultures: the cultures of science, and of the arts. In the intervening years, Snow's observation has become a commonplace, not least because it struck a chord of truth: scientists may have some interest in art and literature, but art and literature (with the exception of science fiction) became increasingly divorced from science.

Indeed, ignorance - and even hostility - regarding science came to be viewed as badges of honor among many in the arts and humanities. And when artists did address technological issues it was usually in the Frankenstein mode: cautionary tales where scientists were the villains - or the trend (begun in the 1970s with anti-nuclear activism by artists like Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt) to oppose technology in the real world.

That seems to be changing now, particularly with the growing popularity of electronic arts and music. As one of the subjects in the rave-music documentary Better Living Through Circuitry remarks, the entire rave/electronica scene depends on technology, so it's natural that listeners and musicians view technology in a positive light. And within the rave/techno scene you see considerable enthusiasm for things like mind-uploading, nanotechnology, and so on, as ethnomusicologist Steve Mizrach has observed in one of the few academic studies of the rave scene:

Though the technology does not exist yet, there is much talk in the rave subculture of neural implants, becoming a "wirehead," of mixing "hardware" and "wetware," and "jacking in" to computers and cyberspace. (Also, of genetic modification and life extension.) Ravers claim that when such technologies become available (such as 'biochips' which may offer 'implantable' new skills like language comprehension or 'matrix jacks' which will allow direct neural communication between the brain and remote interfaces), they will embrace them wholeheartedly, all as part of their quest for the technological perfectibility of the human being. The ravers react with excitement to the technological reworking ("cyborgification") of the human body (prosthetics, hormonal implants, artificial organs, exoskeletons, synthetic blood or other bodily compounds, etc.) and, while often not able to act on that excitement, symbolize it through such 'low-tech' means as body piercing, tattooing and scarification, wearing microchips and circuitry, or using cables and 'hardware' for personal adornment.

Mizrach probably overstates the extent of these views among average rave attendees, but there's no question that these attitudes are prevalent among the cognoscenti. (And they go way back, as Juan Atkins' song "No UFOs" demonstrates - Atkins says that he, like Sun Ra, is among the select group of black sci-fi musicians). Indeed, "trance" music itself was created by observing the tendency of certain beats and frequencies to induce corresponding mental states, with electronic musicians taking their cues from a combination of tribal drum circles and scientists with EEG machines. Trance pioneer Brian Transeau has taken his music into an even more rarefied technological sphere with a song entitled "Fibonacci Sequence" which consists of a voice reciting the - you guessed it - Fibonacci sequence, and the refrain "mathematics is the language of nature." (Nor was this a mere geek cult-classic, as it made it onto a Mixmag best-of-the-year compilation).

And, most recently, biochemist Dr. Linda Long has begun producing CDs in which the haunting sounds (and they really are haunting, as you can hear for yourself by visiting her website) are produced by three-dimensional models of DNA mapped to MIDI code. (You can make your own DNA music by downloading software "different from Long's" here, and DNA sequences from here.) Long is one of many musicians who are drawing music itself, not simply the inspiration for music, from science.

Despite all the attention that it got, it may be that the divide between the two cultures was really a technological one. Now that technology has reached the point at which it's an important part of many artistic endeavors, the gap appears to be closing. After over forty years, it's about time.



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