Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Two cultures by C.P. Snow

I've just finished reading "Two Cultures" by C.P. Snow which is a posit and explanation of his observations about science and engineering on the one hand, and the humanities, art, and literature on the other. To wit: two cultures

Written during the early years of the space race in 1959, Snow observes that the arts and humanities people seem oblivious, ignorant, and befuddled of and by technology. They hardly know it exists, and what they do know is only functional.

The impact of education methodology and objective
In part he attributes this state of affairs to the strategies and goals of education from highschool through the university. In Snow's home country in England -- describing 1959 -- social class informs an educational class and approach. Proper gentlemen simply don't study science and engineering.

He contrasts England's structured (class driven) approach with the looser approach in the U.S. with it's emphasis on critical thinking education, and the emphasis on factual recitation in the Soviet Union (China was not on the chart in 1959)

Even though Snow's writing is four decades in the rear view mirror, it nonetheless has relevance today. One is led to think of Microsoft vs Apple when he speaks of engineering vs art, but Snow is really thinking on a larger canvass.

And, he observes that science and engineering are likewise bifurcated with the pure science scientist unable to understand or communicate with engineers, though less so the other way around.

Project and business impacts
I've got some personal experience with this phenomenon, having worked for an engineering company that prided itself on its ability to develop and manufacture. We all but didn't hire anyone for an engineering job jar but a college educated engineer.

And, we were always befuddled by our inability to win jobs when broad canvas "critical thinking" was what the customer wanted. I always felt it was because we were too stove-piped on engineering... we were in our culture, and any other was pretty foreign.

Now by coincidence comes an essay on exactly that point about having embraced a cross culture environment, only with a different outcome. We learn that Intel, that chip engineering company with exquisite design and development talent, hired an anthropologist to lead their strategic innovation as Director of User Experience; and other social science folks to look at other product trends, utility, and impact.

In fact, the department is over 100 people, mostly doing this:
[as] a skunk works of some 100 social scientists and designers who travel the globe, observing how people use technology in their homes and in public. The team’s findings help inform the company’s product development process, and are also often shared with the laptop makers, automakers and other companies that embed Intel processors in their goods.

OMG! An anthropologist? You can't do that! And, this particular scientist is off the page on other factors common to engineers, like having quite liberal politics. 

Talk about two cultures and the way to bridge them!


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