bruce_parker's picture
Visiting Professor, Stevens Institute of Technology; Author, The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters
The Fourth Culture

If the Edge is the Third Culture (scientists and other thinkers communicating new ideas about the world directly to the general public), and if the rest of the scientists and the so-called literary intellectuals are the first two cultures, as proposed by C.P. Snow, then there is also another culture whose impact is growing fast enough that it can justifiably be called The Fourth Culture. This "culture" is not really new.

In the past we would have simply called it Popular Culture and then dismissed it as a world of mostly superficial entertainment with only a certain segment of the population caught up in it (that segment not considered intellectual or influential). But now this Popular Culture is Internet-driven and global and as a result has become pervasive, and its growing influence does not allow us to dismiss it so easily.

The Internet (and its associated media/communication entities, especially cell phones and cable TV) empowers the Fourth Culture. And it is no longer concerned only with pop music, movies, TV, and video games. It now includes religion and politics and almost everything that touches people in everyday life. It is a bottom-up "culture" with a dumbing-down effect that is likely to have repercussions.

We should be worrying about a growing dominance of the Fourth Culture and how it may directly or indirectly affect us all. Because of its great communication capabilities, and its appeal to people's egos, their sexuality, their prejudices, their faith, their dreams, and their fears, the Fourth Culture can easily shape the thoughts of millions. It promotes emotion over logic, self-centeredness over open-mindedness, and entertainment value and money-making ability over truth and understanding. And for the most part it ignores science.

The primary use of the Internet is still for entertainment, but that alone is a matter of concern. As more and more of the population fills more and more hours of the day with entertainment, this leaves fewer hours for activities that promote intelligence, compassion, or interest in anything that falls outside their own Internet-dominated microcosms. When a person's "accomplishments" in life and self-image become focused on things like scoring the most kills in a video war game or being able to see their favorite rock star in person or having their favorite sports team win a game (all possible before the Internet, but now carried to much greater extremes), what passion is left for the real world, for a job or for the problems of fellow human beings. [Would it be taking the point too far to suggest a parallel with the Romans keeping the masses distracted from dealing with real-world problems by enticing them into the Colosseum and other huge arenas to watch spectacles involving gladiators battling to the death, executions, animal slayings, and dramas depicting famous battles? Such spectacles became an essential feature of social life and politics in the Roman world.]

The Fourth Culture is probably not a threat to science—there is too much money being made from science (and its resulting technology) for science to disappear. We are not trying to improve the science and math scores of our students so we can produce more scientists. There will always be those children born with the boundless curiosity about how the world works that leads them into science or some other analytical type of work. The reason we want to do a better job of educating our children in science is to make them better citizens. Our citizens need to see the world and its problems through the eyes of science. They must be able to recognize logical approaches to trying to solve problems, and not be blinded by religious views, myths, or bogus fears (promoted by opponents to a particular course of action).

Nowhere does the Fourth Culture cause more concern than in how it affects who we select as our leaders using a now handicapped democratic system. How the products/results of science are used is now often in the hands of decision makers who do not understand science. Some of them actually think science is bad and that carefully studied and proven theories are no different than religious dogma.

We want elected officials to be intelligent people who care about doing what is best for all the people of the nation (or the world). But elected government positions are the only jobs that have no required criteria that prospective candidates must meet (other than a minimum age, and for President being born in the U.S.). Candidates for elected office do not need to have a college degree or success in business or any verifiable achievements in order to be elected.

They simply need to convince people to vote for them, by whatever emotional means their campaign teams can come up with. Because of the Fourth Culture it has become easier to elect uninformed and even stupid candidates through emotional manipulation in the form of appeals to religion, patriotism, class distinctions, ethnic biases, etc. (all fueled by huge amounts of money, of course). Superficial sound bites and campaign ads that look like movie trailers win out over carefully thought-out logical discourse.

The Press, once called the fourth branch of a democratic government because it kept the other three branches honest, is now just "the media" and has distressingly lost much or even most of it watch-dog capabilities. In an attempt to survive financially in this Internet-dominated media world, the press has: cut back newsrooms, relied more on unsubstantiated sources from the Internet, treated pop stories as news (reducing the space devoted to important stories, especially scientific stories), and allowed even the most idiotic and abusive comments to be left on their websites (in the name of free speech, but really to have as many comments as possible to prove to advertisers that their websites are popular).

We had hoped that the Internet would be a democratizing force. We had hoped that it would give everyone a voice and bring to light new ideas and new approaches to solving serious problems. To some degree it has and it still may do a lot more. But the Internet has also given a voice to the ignorant. A voice they never had before. A loud and emotional voice. We can hope that the effects of the growing influence of the Fourth Culture do not turn out to be destructive on a large scale, but it is something worth worrying about and it is worth looking for ways to reduce its impact. And it is one more reason why expanding the Third Culture is so important.