From the wearable internet to big data dating, new tech tools are, at a breath-taking rate, changing the texture of human experience–what it feels like to walk around in a human skin.
Meanwhile, that skin is still wrapped around sausage tens of millions of years old, seasoned with instincts, patterns of thought and emotions added to the recipe by the demands of survival and trial and error over tens of thousands of years.
As a species we are beginning to see the problems this creates.
But the moment has opportunity, too.
Like the term postmodern, what “3rd Culture” actually means is up for grabs to some extent. Generally, I take it as a marker for the assertion of science as a source of cultural wisdom over the traditional sources of religion, philosophy and the arts. The procession of high priests and gurus from Aristotle to Aquinas to Freud must give way to Newton, Darwin and Pinker.
Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines among many other books, is a celebrated third culture thinker.
Geneticist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago is another, lesser known, example.
But, like the literary, philosophical and aesthetic Modernists before them, Third Culture thinkers have a messianic sense of mission. They believe that in science we now have the source of true wisdom and in technology the right tools to freely and responsibly shape the future. “We are, at last, the true innovators,” they seem to be saying, “ready to chart a peaceful, creative and productive social future for a new and improved human animal.”
Donald Fagan imagines their type in “I.G.Y.” singing about the future he had imagined as a boy: “Just machines to make big decisions, programmed by fellas with compassion and vision.”
These thoughts came in a rush when I read this piece in NYT about the simple reality of how we wash ourselves. It’s a quick read, take a look.
Julia Scott writes: “As a civilization, we’ve just spent the better part of a century doing our unwitting best to wreck the human-associated microbiota. . . . Whether any cures emerge from the exploration of the second genome, the implications of what has already been learned — for our sense of self, for our definition of health and for our attitude toward bacteria in general — are difficult to overstate.”
So what is “4th Culture?”
As far as I know, I’m making it up. Someone else has probably coined the term but I’m going to wait until I finish this post to check that out. What I mean by it is the emerging new level of respect for the overwhelming complexity of the machinery of nature and the growing sense that our survival–even our happiness–may depend upon respecting and cooperating with it more than tinkering with or replacing it.
4th cultural trends aren’t characterized by a rejection of science and technology; without them this new level of insight and creative practice would be impossible. In fact it is because we see the complexity of life more clearly, that we are obliged to recognize cultural patterns of blind arrogance to it. We know dispersed pollutants remain in the environment; we’re better than ever at tracking them though we’re only just beginning to slow down the dumping. How can anyone–much less a scientist– propose that we know enough to introduce mobile new genes into the food supply?
Co-operation with nature is going to require spiritual skills and the cultivation of character as much as technical know how. The Humanities may have as vital a role as they ever have in that work.
Are discoveries like the beneficent role of bacteria on our skin a part of a tide we are beginning to feel, a movement toward a synthesis of what it is given with what we are seeking?
Will this new social-spiritual-neurological culture feel good enough and catch on quickly enough for our still-ancient species to affirm the graces of the life we’ve been given? Will we catch on quickly enough to keep from seeing ourselves as “creature-machines” rather than “creature-persons?”
Of course, when I checked I found out that many people were way ahead of me on this 4th culture thing. But like the many “winning” captions I’ve written but not sent in to the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, I take some comfort in knowing I came up with it on my own.