Monday, 31 May 2010

The alienating power of scientific progress

I've just been listening to this week's edition of Start The Week . As usual, there was all kinds of discussion, constrained, as it has to be, by the time available.
Here's the synopsis:
"The philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford, who argues that satisfaction comes
from skilled manual labour. Iranian artist Shirin Neshat discusses her new film,
Women Without Men, Sheila Rowbotham muses on the role of women in transforming ideas
about work at the turn of the 20th century and the President of the Royal Society,
Martin Rees, explores scientific horizons and discovers the limits of our understanding."

That got me thinking about the role of science in society, and how we feel about it. It seems to me there's a case for saying that, as science has become ever more crucial to the way we live our lives, our estrangement from it as something exciting and at least generally fathomable has increased. This is dangerous.

How science is taught is obviously very iimportant, and we all know how much a matter of sheer luck it is if we happen to get the kind of experience, and the kind of mentor, who fires us up about an aspect of knowledge.

But progress itself is a stumbling block. for a start, as Martin Rees pointed out this morning, science has enabled us to examine areas far beyond those which our brains have evolved to understand, such as sub-atomic particles, or conditions millions of light years beyond this little planet.

But my main thought this morning took me back to a recent conversation with a friend about how much more exciting electronics, hifi audio, and the wonders of stereo sound were to us growing up. This is not just a consequence of aging I think. When I was growing up, electronic devices were made up of discreet components, and it was not difficult to get at least a general understanding of how it worked if you were interested. If you had the skill, you could take an amplifier to pieces and rebuild it, or go out and buy the bits to build a new one - huge cudos to anyone among your friends who did this.
Now, there are no discreet components. The curious child now stares at a circuit board containing very few items, most of which do multiple tasks, which it would take advanced knowledge and a microscope to understand.

Children are now famous for being able to tell you how the VCR or PC works, but that's "how" it works, not "why" it works. Getting results is now the important thing, because you have no chance of understanding what you're doing. I meet kids who are evidently confused between the difference between hitting the "Demo" button on their home keyboard, and maybe singing or playing something over the top of it, and being able to really play the whole thing. They have no real grasp, technically or musically, on how that demo was put together. They can learn of course, and I hope there are educators out there to help them do that. But being more and more spoon fed by things we don't and, increasingly can't, understand, divorces us from what used to be the electrifying excitement of understandable science, as it divorces us from another aspect of controlling our own lives.