Friday, July 24, 2009

Have We Forgotten HG Wells Already?

Where science, psychology, and psi events meet

One of the pioneers of the science fiction genre, H.G. Wells, used that platform to make a statement about what he saw as the dark side of the growing fascination with science and the decline of interest in the humanities. Today, we are paying the price for not heeding his warning.

In his new book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectable, Pulitzer Prize-wining journalist, Chris Hedges, speaks to a broad range of societal ills that began with the cultural shift immediately following WWII. In the book, he addresses the loss of literacy and the preference toward consumerism and shallowness. He also laments the displacement of the humanities curriculum in major universities in favor of vocational education.

The latter was a major theme in H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds. He intentionally created the aliens with big heads and little bodies (holding tiny hearts), to emphasize the preference for analytical intelligence over emotional intelligence. He warned that following such a path would lead to advancements in technology without an ethical foundation to govern its direction or scope.

Wells had many detractors in the sci-fi community because he didn’t base his futuristic science on real calculations, as did Jules Verne. However, he did base it in facts, which alluded to the dark side of human nature. Just as we have seen Verne’s fantastic machines built, we are also seeing Well’s prophecies come true in the conduct of our society.

Wells certainly wasn’t the only great figure in history to proclaim such a warning. General Omar Bradley made several cautionary comments, including: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” He also said, “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” Most everyone is familiar with the ethical crisis faced by Einstein, a pacifist, over the use of the atomic weapons his calculations helped create.

About a year ago, a documentary on the changes in China featured a vignette on several students anxiously awaiting the arrival of their university acceptance letters. One student opened his and read aloud that he had been accepted to M.I.T. to which the other students responded by lowering and shaking their heads while giving their condolences. Because M.I.T. insisted on graduating students who could also write good papers, they were further down the list of desired schools than those that focused exclusively on the development of new technology.

What we know of ancient cultures was a mix of their language, visual art, writings, music, fashion, rituals, mathematics, and technology. The overwhelming majority of those factors fall into the humanities category. What will future societies know of us? The first classes we cut in our educational system during a budget crunch are the arts. What does that say about our priorities?

There is currently an initiative from the White House to encourage kids to do better in math and science because the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world in those subjects. The fact is, the U.S. is falling behind in all subjects. Perhaps Chris Hedges is right in that we have built an empire of illusion and the preference for spectacle over substance has won.