The Two Cultures War

I gave a lecture on this subject recently, along with Caitlin Buchman. In our preparatory discussions of the material, we covered far more ground than we were able to tackle in our lectures, so I’m going to present my digest of our results here. Caitlin deserves authorship credit for many of these ideas, but I have managed to reword them in terms that she justifiably might disavow.

Forty years ago, C.P. Snow gave a lecture entitled "The Two Cultures" in which he advanced the thesis that the Western intellectual tradition was bifurcating into two cultures, an arts/humanities culture and a science/technology culture. These two cultures, he averred, are at war for the soul of Western civilization.

The intellectual nature of this conflict makes it easy to underestimate the visceral energy that it generates. The sad fact is, the Two Cultures War is fought with a bitterness and determination that defies reason. I can offer by way of example the tragic brouhaha over nuclear power that peaked in the 1970s. It was at heart a Two Cultures battle, but the executives of the nuclear power industry failed to realize this, and so they fought the wrong battle, and lost billions of dollars.

This is directly pertinent to our industry, because Hollywood is steeped in the arts/humanities culture and Silicon Valley is equally steeped in the science/technology culture. The disruptive effects of the Two Cultures War that wreaked so much havoc with the nuclear power industry could be just as destructive to the nascent interactive entertainment industry.

The manifestations of the Two Cultures War on the marriage between Silicon Valley and Hollywood are myriad. Here are some of them:

Center of the Universe
For Hollywood, storytelling lies at the center of the creative universe. The story is everything; all else serves to advance and improve the storytelling process. Thus, Hollywood comes to the marriage and asks, "how can the high-tech doodads and gizmos of Silicon Valley be used to improve our storytelling?" Creativity in Hollywood means creativity in making stories. First we decide the story we want to tell, then we figure out how to do it. The technology is just another means of supporting this process.

For Silicon Valley, technology lies at the center of the universe. We play around in the labs with the technology, trying out all sorts of kooky ideas, until we come up with something that’s faster, bigger, smaller, or cheaper. Then we ask ourselves, what can we do with this superior technology? The Hollywood people look at this and shake their heads in disgust; how can those Silicon Valley people get anything done when they don’t have their priorities straight? The Silicon Valley people counter that this is the nature of the creative process in a high-tech environment. The fact is, this method has worked beautifully for years, and Silicon Valley isn’t about to abandon the technique.

Most people, even the Hollywood people, will agree that "Hollywood just doesn’t understand interactivity". Of course, we Silicon Valley people must admit that we don’t have the best of grips on interactivity, either. But there still remains a big difference: Silicon Valley believes in interactivity, and Hollywood doesn’t. All too often, Hollywood people see interactivity in much the same way as the VCR: it’s another outlet for packaging their movies. They had to make a few changes to accommodate the VCR, primarily in the way that they shot their movies, but fundamentally the VCR didn’t change Hollywood’s attitudes towards its work. In the same way, Hollywood seems to expect interactivity to be an extra added feature to make its movies even more exciting.

Mass Market
Silicon Valley’s blind spot arises from its inability to comprehend the mass market. This comes from its heritage. The paterfamilias of Silicon Valley is Hewlitt-Packard, a company revered throughout the valley. HP’s prime strategy is simple: "we make products that we would like to use ourselves". In effect, the engineers at HP sell to themselves. This strategy has worked magnificently for 50 years so why should Silicon Valley change? As a result, when it comes to interactive entertainment, Silicon Valley engineers make products that they like to play. This leads to products that other nerds love, but just don’t appeal to mainstream America. Perhaps the most telling expression of Silicon Valley’s thick-headedness in this regard is the phrase "DOS for consumers".

How To Solve It
So how are we going to make worthwhile products when the key creative types in Silicon Valley and Hollywood are as compatible as display cards for Mac and IBM? How can we do business when they say "potahto" and we say "potaeto"? Perhaps we could ask the fellow who wrote "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" to write "Interactivists are from Silicon Valley, Narratists are from Hollywood" but I fear that the war of the Two Cultures dwarfs the battle of the sexes in complexity and intensity.

The obvious answer is that we need to form creative teams that merge the best talent of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Right -- just like Rocket Science.

Shotgun marriages don’t work. The worst mistake you can make is to take some "top Hollywood talent" and some "top Silicon Valley talent" and put them together on the same team. Sorry, you can’t have two prima donnas in one show. What makes a person "top talent" in his/her respective field? It’s excellence in that field which pretty much precludes competence in a radically different field. You wouldn’t expect a great actor to be good at woodworking, or a hotshot director to be a hotshot brain surgeon, or a stellar screenwriter to be a topnotch golfer, would you? So why would you expect any of these people to be good at interactivity? And the same thing goes, of course, for the Silicon Valley people trying to do storytelling.

You can’t get a duck by strapping footfins onto a chicken, nor by gluing feathers onto a carp. You need an organic integration of both sets of skills, and jamming people with disparate skills onto one team does not constitute "organic integration". You need one person with strong interactive talents and strong storytelling talents, for the Two Cultures War is better fought across a corpus callosum than across a meeting room table.

Right now, such people don’t exist. You have to grow them. You most certainly don’t start with a big name person from one field and then hope that they can learn the other field. The net talent of a bi-talented person is not the sum of the individual talents, it’s the product. Thus, a "10" in the storytelling side who learns enough to be a "1" on the interactivity side doesn’t perform anywhere near as well as somebody who’s a "5" in each of the two fields. Like genes, they don’t average; the dominant gene wins and the recessive gene loses.

The way to do it is to start with some bright-eyed, bushytailed kid with lots of promise and very little else, and then force that kid to play on both sides of the fence. A young person has less to unlearn than an old pro. Moreover, I think that you’re better off starting with arts/humanities people than with science/technology people. My impression is that one programmer in a hundred has the aptitude to learn storytelling, but one writer in ten has the aptitude to learn programming. Programmers are made, but artists are born.

Think of this approach as court-ordered busing for the Two Cultures. And like the race problem, it won’t be solved by getting the old racists of the world to talk nice to each other. They’ll never get it. Every penny you spend trying to get them to work together is money down the drain.