Book Review: The Two Cultures

The Two Cultures, C. P. Snow’s landmark treatise from 1959, is a book that bears a fresh look in an era where computing technology permeates and dominates popular culture. The central argument of this essay describes an unbridgeable chasm between the “two cultures” evident in the mindsets of scientists and of literary intellectuals. Now, more than 50 years later, Snow’s analysis of this dichotomy is still worthy of reflection.

The Cambridge University Press edition of this work features the original essay, which was delivered as the annual Rede Lecture at Cambridge, a tradition that goes back to the year 1706. Equally important is the included follow-up essay from 1963, “A Second Look,” which does a great deal to clarify and expand upon the earlier speech. The original speech consisted of two main topics, his elucidation of the two cultures, and then a passionate plea to close the gap between rich and poor nations, a challenge made more difficult due to the lack of communication between scientists and the intellectual community. When first released, his speech hit a raw nerve all over the world, with many recognizing the essential truth of his observations.

To summarize the essence of his argument, consider this quote from the “Second Look” essay: “In our society . . . we have lost even the pretense of a common culture . . . I gave the pointed example of this lack of communication in the shape of two groups of people, representing what I have christened ‘the two cultures’. One of these contained the scientists . . . The other contained the literary intellectuals . . . [who] represent, vocalize, and to some extent shape and predict the mood of the non-scientific culture . . . Between these two groups . . . there is little communication and, instead of fellow-feeling, something like hostility.”

Moving forward a half-century to present day, it’s useful to apply Snow’s lessons to today’s tech-heavy world. Let’s generalize the term “literary intellectuals” as the “humanities,” and narrow the focus of “science” to mean “information technology,” and then ask ourselves how this plays out in the world of corporate America. Is there a gulf between those employees trained in the humanities and those in the information technology sector? My observation is that this divide exists and that the dichotomy plays an increasingly significant role in the inner tensions within our larger corporations.

Regardless of industry, the consumer face of business in America has certainly increased the customer’s need to interface with computer technology and reduced the experience of human interaction. Salespersons have been replaced with kiosks, customers are scanning their own items in grocery checkouts and human-based customer service has been replaced with automated phone calls and self-service on the internet. Within the internal workings of corporations, there has been a corresponding transformation to increase technology staff and reduce the necessity for traditional positions in sales and marketing. In fact, employees who are called “analysts” are now much more likely to be spending their time dealing with data than with any human interaction left in the business.

Analogous to C. P. Snow’s observations, technologists have little interest in the human side of the equation, and non-tech business people have little knowledge of the internals of technology. To paraphrase Snow’s observation that the scientists haven’t read Shakespeare and intellectuals don’t understand the second law of thermodynamics, in today’s world, it seems that technologists don’t read books period, and business people know little about the inner workings of databases. Employees who are hired for positions in the IT divisions of their companies seldom transition to the business side, and vice versa. There is a chasm within the corporation between those on the tech side and everyone else. Should technological capabilities dictate and drive business processes and goals? Can those on the business side devise strategies independent of how they are implemented via technology? These are questions that go to the heart of an often insurmountable division in outlook and knowledge between the two sides.

Of course, we do see occasional instances of business leaders who able to bridge the gap between technology and more humane business considerations. Steve Jobs of Apple was famous for keeping his focus on the usability of technology for the average customer. His technological knowledge did not take precedence over the reality of the product. One wonders, though, how many individuals within Apple have the luxury and freedom to work both sides of the fence in a similar manner. Perhaps more telling is the story of Bill Gates, who was a brilliant technologist while he led Microsoft, but has since moved over the human side of the equation in his philanthropic endeavors to address and solve intractable societal issues.

The Two Cultures remains as relevant today as it was when first enunciated over fifty years ago. While providing no easy answers, this text provides the reader with thought-provoking observations that speak to basic aspects of human nature and organizational behavior.

The Two Cultures
by C. P. Snow
Cambridge University Press, 1998
179 pages, $19.99

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