| Home - Human Nature Review | What's new | Search | Feedback |


by Robert M. Young

Television has replaced literary culture as the main agenda-setting medium in British society, but the printed word remains the primary sphere in which we savour and debate our sensibilities, values and priorities. I want to reflect here on the treatment of science and technology as culture. The way they are currently presented contrasts with their dramatically increasing role in areas of life which are usually subjected to close critical scrutiny. I think it is important that we should create new spaces in the media for the consideration of science and technology and that we should cultivate a different approach to them.

A philosopher or scientist would be likely to claim that I have already muddled my categories and insist that science is the domain of hypotheses, research, facts and theories while culture is concerned with visions, performances, values and artefacts. But the Controller of Programmes at the BBC knows better: science is extremely successful export-worthy prime time culture: Life on Earth, The Body in Question, The Voyage of Charles Darwin. Publishers know better, too. Omni is a glossy, but not very deep or critical, magazine of science, science fiction and fantasy with lots of colour photographs, silver pages and advertisements. It sells a million copies of every issue (ten per cent in the UK) and has recently lured away Bernard Dixon, the editor of the highly-regarded general science weekly, New Scientist (circulation 75,000, 55,000 in the UK). Nature, the most prestigious scientific periodical, is also trying to expand its market from 22,000 weekly (6,000 in the UK) and has hired a proven circulation expander, Robert Ubell, as its American publisher. These figures are a tiny fraction of an immense market for scientific and science-related magazines for the general public. Twenty million Americans buy or subscribe to one every month, and several new ones are just out or on the stocks.

At the other end of the market a number of small-circulation pamphlets and periodicals are at tempting to examine critically the process by which new developments in science, technology and medicine come into being and how they affect society and culture itself. (Recent examples of these interactions have been the shutdowns at Times Newspapers and ITV.) The gap between the treatment of science as a cultural ornament for large audiences and as a subject for critical scrutiny in specialised publications is one that needs filling.

The reigning assumption seems to be that large numbers of people will watch or read about science and technology if they are presented in lavish productions with globe-trotting crews taking the presenter to a different setting with every cut. The audience admires and learns as part of its self-improvement and leisure. For me this approach is epitomised by Paul Vaughn, whose voice-over normally guides us through Horizon programmes. The tone is one of patient, measured exposition. I feel my education and entertainment to be good hands. He elicits the same trusting familiarity as Dan Maskell does at Wimbledon. There are more or less elegant, charming and enthusiastic versions of this manner, and it runs through most of the major cultural television series: Lord Clark, Alistair Cooke, Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough and Jonathan Miller .

Perhaps the most widely-known exponent of this mode of stylish enthusiasm is the American astronomer and populariser of science, Carl Sagan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. He has followed this up with Broca's Brain: The Romance of Science (Hodder and Stoughton), which is, as too often happens in these matters, really only a collection of occasional essays, lectures and speculations. This is soon to be followed by a new world-transcending thirteen-part television series - Cosmos.

There is nothing hectoring in the characteristic style of the presenters of science and technology — no weary sense of having to go through it all again for a slow pupil. Rather, there is a note of shared honour in the invitation to us to regard the uplifting and awe-inspiring phenomena of nature and the remarkable achievements of dedicated seekers after truth and progress. But they invite no reply, except, perhaps, ’That is beautiful, fascinating; I have been enlightened.’ It is serious but very palatable fare — to be consumed. The general public are queuing up to be informed in this way, and that's what the media are catering for. I'm told that the paperback rights for E. O. Wilson's Human Nature, went for $200,000, while Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape has sold over eight million copies.

The alternative to culture as the consumption of enlightenment is culture as critique. Putting the same point politically, it is in the sphere of ideological forms that people become aware of the basic contradictions in society and argue them out. If we are to find ways of subjecting science and technology to critical scrutiny, and if the general public are to have a voice in determining the direction of research and its applications, then we will have to take a different approach to these topics in the media. (It is of course far from being universally agreed that the general public should have any say in matters of policy in research and development.)

The direction taken by research and the development of new processes, products and procedures involves discrimination of values, and the results embody choices about how we spend our time and resources and how our work, health and leisure are to be catered for and structured. Those choices are now being made by individual researchers, research and development departments, grant-giving bodies and entrepreneurs. The results of those priority decisions are not merely esoteric or theoretical. They are fundamentally affecting — constituting — the quality of life. But we hear nothing about them until they come on stream as word processors, Prestel, video cassette recorders, electronic news gathering, robotic assembly, genetic engineering, cloning, gasohol, TV games, mood drugs, cerebral implants, human organ transplants, artificial fertilization and implantation, even electronically controlled offices or plants where all phone calls, all movements of staff, all work and errors can be monitored and recorded (over 150 such systems are already installed in Britain). What the media treat is the ’impact’ of such developments. Where were those media when they were being conceived and prepared for marketing? Today is yesterday's Tomorrow's World, but what debate occurred before Raymond Baxter and Co were allowed to televise what's in store for us?

If it is in the domain of culture that the values, priorities and choices about the quality of life are contested, then we must find ways of opening up spaces in culture in which we can bring into the mainstream the processes by which developments in science and technology are constituted, at a stage when those developments are not so highly capitalised that we are only being asked to regard them, consume them and adapt to their consequences. These matters are not unavailable for consideration well in advance. I attended a conference in 1970 on ’The Social Impact of Modern Biology’ where genetic engineering and cloning were mooted. The likelihood that Mr Steptoe and Dr Edwards's work would lead to the prospect of one woman — say a black South African — carrying another woman's foetus was raised at the same meeting. The BBC recorded the entire proceedings, and the talks were published in paperback, but little was heard or seen outside the specialised scientific periodicals. The benefits and problems of genetic engineering are only now coming to the attention of the general public, and it was not until Mr Steptoe announced the imminence of host mothers at the British Association this September that it was spelled out in the newspapers. It was put in the following terms:


"Host mothers" are . increasingly common among farm animals, where breeders use phrases like superior progeny and superior stock. The human parallel inevitably raises fears of master race genetic manipulation. Mr Steptoe told the association in Edinburgh that stand-ins would give birth for a woman who could not have babies because of disease or physical handicap... Cattle breeders say "embryo transfer" enables the progeny of an ideal cow and ideal bull to be increased many times by using lesser cows merely as "hosts" [The Guardian 7.9.791]

Even now there is no debate in the mainstream of culture on the many issues raised by this development.

The likely effects of microprocessors are becoming widely known, but the market forces pushing the chip towards ubiquitousness are treated as inexorable. We are being told so much about the gee-whiz side (e.g., the ’cashless society’) and the doom side (the resulting unemployment) that people suffer from sensory overload on the whole topic. The Guardian recently rejected pieces on the political aspects of new technologies and another on the probable devastation of labour-intensive production in the Third World as a result of the introduction of chips in both developed and underdeveloped countries. The comment was that they'd had enough of chips lately. The New Statesman's science correspondent tells me ’On the subject of chips there is an immense boredom barrier to be overcome’. This in response to a pamphlet on women workers in South East Asia which points out, among other things, that over a million of them are working for American microelectronic corporations for as little as 40p per day; that they are called ’grandma’ after age 25 because they suffer severe eye damage after three or four years and often lose their jobs; and that union organization is prevented by the firms. This information has had some currency in the computing industry press, in left publications and in feminist circles. But the connection between the digital watches and TV games which are advertised all over the colour supplements and the working conditions of the people who make these inexpensive new products has found little expression in the periodicals read outside special interest groups. The same can be said of recent publications on the marketing of British food products and drugs in the Third World and on the control of seeds and the technology of food production by five multinational companies.

This sequestration of issues concerning science and technology from the mainstream of culture is a twentieth-century phenomenon. In earlier periods such matters were at the centre of awareness of the literate public. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the ’Voyage to Laputa’ in Gulliver's Travels, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Carlyle's ’Signs of the Times’ and Ruskin's ’The Storm Cloud over the Nineteenth Century’ were all concerned with the dangers of the free reign of science. Tennyson and George Eliot looked more deeply into the challenge posed by scientific naturalism to transcendent values. The main nineteenth-century reviews — the Edinburgh, the Quarterly, the Westminster — routinely contained extensive critical essays on the scientific issues of the day and their social, political and moral relations: Malthusian population theory; brain research; Lyellian geology; the factory system, and new technologies; Chambers's, Spencer's and Darwin's evolutionism. The meetings of the provincial Literary and Philosophical Societies were well-attended and debated science and its implications, while the British Association was specifically founded to improve the public understanding of science and to provide a forum for its scrutiny. In the wake of Darwinism the Metaphysical Society was created to ponder the relations between science, morality and the social order. Even after the decline of the main quarterlies, these deliberations appeared in a new generation of periodicals, while brilliant popularisers wrote regularly on scientific developments, T. H. Huxley, for instance, in The Nineteenth Century or R. H. Hutton in The Spectator. It was only in the last decades of the nineteenth century that the division of labour succeeded in fragmenting this common cultural context, and different aspects of science and its relations were parcelled out to specialist journals which became decreasingly accessible to the general public: Mind, Brain, Man, Nature.

In America at the end of the century The Monist and Popular Science Monthly catered for non-specialist audiences, but the former declined into a professional philosophers' journal, while the latter became a popular exposition of science for hobbyists (I subscribed to it as a boy in the 1940s, along with Mechanics Illustrated). When a whole new approach to the organization of work was under way at the hands of F. W. Taylor around the turn of the century, he published his epoch making papers in an obscure professional journal, Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Scientific management did not come to the general public's attention until violent workers' protests against the rigid new forms of work discipline led to Congressional hearings. That pattern has since become characteristic of the relations between innovation and public awareness.

In the present century science and technology have developed a division of labour greater than in any other field of human endeavour. At the same time they are playing an increasingly direct role in our daily lives, one which will expand dramatically in the 1980s. This is already true in the large-scale industrial spheres of microprocessing, genetic engineering and biotechnology. It is imminent in the more particular medical spheres of spare-part surgery, the control of immune responses and obstetrics and gynaecology (determination of the sex of the foetus, artificial fertilisation and implantation in natural or host uteruses).

The isolation of such issues from the mainstream of public debate has gone so far that deliberate steps ought to be taken to change the situation. At present we have lots of science-as-culture, but it is primarily for consumption, not for debate about values and priorities. The critical debate is conducted in small-circulation periodicals: Vole (anarcho-environmentalist), Undercurrents (alternative and radical technology), Science for People (radical/marxist) and Radical Science Journal (libertarian marxist) and the American CoEvolution Quarterly (’whole earth’ diversity). Some of these publications are attempting to break out of a specialist ghetto to embrace wider issues. For example, the widely-read and highly-regarded International Journal of Health Services, published from Johns Hopkins University, used to say that it was a ’multidisciplinary publication devoted to the subjects of policy, planning, administration, and evaluation of health services’. But it has recently changed this description to ’health and social policy, political economy and sociology, history and philosophy, and ethics and law’. As I've said, the issues with which these publications are concerned find little place in general cultural periodicals.

Other groups produce pamphlets on various aspects of science and technology, health and safety: the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS), Friends of the Earth, Social Audit, War on Want, Counter Information Service (CIS). But they are media waifs. Their publications are neither reviewed nor debated. They are given the odd status of news items (but with publication information added at the bottom of the piece). They are neither matters for critical review nor for editorial comment; there is no niche for them. The literary pages of periodicals ignore them unless they can gain the status of published books, and even then they need to appear between hard covers to have much chance of being noticed.

What happens, then, if someone wants to break out of the specialist and pressure-group ghettos? One technique which has recently met with some success is to wrap it up as melodrama. This is what Dr Michael Crichton did with respect to the (botched) use of psychosurgery and cerebrally implanted electrodes for the control of ’violent behaviour’. In the foreword to The Terminal Man (Cape) he spells out the medical and social concerns which inspired the book. Nearly a decade later that issue became the subject of an internationally notorious lawsuit, based on the same case (the doctors won). The author of Coma (Pan), Dr Robin Cook, added an author's note to his horror story of international trade in human organs for transplanting. The problem of organ scarcity for transplantation represents only one flagrant example of the failure of society in general and medicine in particular to anticipate the social, legal, and ethical ramifications of a technological innovation. For some inexplicable reason, society waits to the very end before creating appropriate policy to pick up the pieces and make sense out of chaos. And in the instance of transplantation, failure to recognize mounting problems and enact appropriate solutions will certainly open Pandora's box with its countless unconscionable possibilities: Both of those books were made into successful films. The same is, of course, true of The China Syndrome which Jane Fonda used as a vehicle to publicize a political position on nuclear power. The coincidence of its release with the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident drives home the aptness of melodrama as a genre for gaining a wider audience. In arguing that cultural publications should deliberately open their pages to debates on the direction and the implications of science and technology I am not saying that they should try to force-feed their readers with worthy fare. Those of us who want wider, deeper and earlier debates have to win our way. We are accustomed to writing didactically, expecting the importance of the topic to command attention. The norms of communication in the arts are much less expository and more evocative. This means that we must try to create more effective cultural forms — new ways of eliciting resonances and of moving readers dramatically, biographically, in debate. But we need help.

Some of it is coming to hand. The Guardian has inaugurated a ’Futures’ page on Thursdays though it has yet to make its offerings very appetising. Yorkshire Television — if I have under stood their motives rightly — has tried to move away from the ’guru-retails-wisdom-to-audience’ model of science with Don't Just Sit There. Studio audience and viewers were encouraged to take part, to propose research topics, to contribute data, their own solutions and surveys. (But Magnus Pyke and David Bellamy still declaim their items like hucksters selling snake oil at a fair.) The basic conception of trying to involve the audience is a large step in the right direction. (In Holland they have shops near research centres for this purpose, where members of the public can ask for new investigations and research projects to be undertaken and comment on existing ones.)

Television and periodicals don't exhaust the possibilities. Radio is another medium which is available for raising the level of public participation in science and technology. But changes would be needed here, too. Those of the Reith Lectures which have been concerned with science have been presented in the standard mode of wisdom from on high, while the non-scientific ones treat the series as an opportunity to argue a case for a controversial position on social or political or moral topics. Similarly, when Radio 3 had more time for talks, I took part in some controversial series on ’Science and Ideology’, in the wake of the ’Social Impact’ conference mentioned above, and on ’Are Hierarchies Necessary?’ following from Daniel Schon's Reith Lectures. American, Canadian and Australian radio have many slots for such debates. Why has the BBC become markedly less open to such controversies? What about local and commercial radio?

A good example of how not to do it was a recent Radio 4 Tuesday Call on genetic engineering. The whole tenor of the experts' remarks was in that explaining tone of voice — that there is little (Bob Williamson) or nothing (Walter Bodmer) to worry about. Williamson said of human cloning that it's not any fun, and he couldn't think why anyone would ever want to do it. They failed to convey just how much controversy there is in Britain, America and France over the kind of guidelines (statutory, voluntary, none) and control bodies there should be and the extent of participation by unions and the public in monitoring the decision-making. Both speakers were enthusiastic gene splicers — advocates keen to allay or forestall public fears. Anyone who hadn't followed the raging debate in New Scientist, Nature and in occasional Guardian reports would have no idea just how complex, fraught and economically loaded this field is. Their ’There, there’ response failed to grasp that genetic engineering, cloning and ’test tube babies’ are aspects of deep concerns about just what the sorcerer's apprentices are getting up to. Why was there no militant union representative or speaker from the BSSRS Genetic Engineering Group? Such programmes should open up issues rather than soothe the public about real concerns These concerns should not be subjected to premature closure.

On the question of human cloning, there has, of course, been the cause celebre of David Rorvik's In His Image (Sphere), which purports to be an account of the actual cloning of an American industrialist (my hunch is that it was Daniel K. Ludwig, the man Horizon showed converting a huge hunk of Brazil into a forestry fiefdom). Rorvik's book goes to some extent into the social and ethical issues, but when the Tuesday Documentary explored Rorvik's claims in ’The Clone Affair’ they concentrated almost exclusively on whether or not the book was a hoax. There was only a brief moment when one of the lawyers in the programme went into the ethical and social issues. Whether or not Rorvik is a Clifford Irving (who perpetrated a hoax concerning the reclusive Howard Hughes), all agree that the technique is feasible, and human cloning is likely to occur soon, if it hasn't already. What is our position on it ?

I think that editors and producers should positively discriminate in favour of treating such issues as issues, not merely as scandals. Room always be found for something like The Search the Manchurian Candidate (about CIA drug experimentation); on the other hand, I have seen no reviews in the general press and periodicals Vance Packard's The People Shapers (Futura) June Goodfield's Playing Cod: Genetic Engineering and the Manipulation of Life (Abacus), or, Technology of Political Control (Penguin) by Carol Ackroyd et al. I very much hope that a book on the political role of experts and professional people which has just appeared will find an important place in public debate: Between Labour a Capital: The Professional-Managerial Class edited by Pat Walker (Harvester). I'd say the same on behalf of Lesley Doyal's The Political Economy of Health. (Pluto).

Regular monitoring of the specialist periodicals and pamphlets on science and technology, with occasional topical reviews, would at least get these topics into the mainstream. For example, there a by now over a dozen pamphlets (ranging from excellent to decent) on microprocessors and their social consequences. An expository television series such as The Mighty Micro is no substitute for the kind of review of a controversy that Geoffrey Barraclough has done so well (on other issues) in the New York Review of Books. To a considerable extent those who decide what goes into cultural periodicals and radio and television programmes can make up their minds that the role of science and technology has become so directly involved in the quality of life that the definition of culture as critique should be widened. The sorts of sensibilities which we associate with the plastic, graphic and performing arts would then be extended to include the consideration of the constitutive role of science and technology.

I hope that these cautionary tales and explorations of possible spaces will not divert attention from my main point: we now treat science and technology as matters for cultural consumption and we need to treat them as issues for cultural concern.

3941 words

This article appeared in Quarto No. 2, December 1979, pp. 7-8.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

US -

Amazon.com logo

UK -

Amazon.co.uk logo

 | Human Nature | Books and Reviews | The Human Nature Daily Review | Search |