Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Coping with alien culture

Many years ago, Eric Bear gave me Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows; I was still managing designers then, and he told me that he liked to hand out this book, a personal muse. I treasured this slim paperback mostly for its title, but only started reading it a couple of days ago.

It is so hard to understand what it feels like to be the citizen of an occupied country -- and even harder, to experience the sense of being overtaken by a superior technology -- if one's culture has never been the loser. In a passage describing his difficulties he had integrating Western conveniences into his Japanese home, Tanizaki gives a flavor of this bitter draft.

There are those who hold that to quibble over matters of taste in the basic necessities of life is an extravagance, that as long as a house keeps out the cold and as long as food keeps off starvation, it matters little what they look like. And indeed for even the sternest ascetic the fact remains that a snowy day is cold, and there is no denying the impulse to accept the services of a heater if it happens to be there in front of one, no matter how cruelly its inelegance may shatter the spell of the day.

But it is on occasions like this that I always think how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science. Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of everyday gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art -- would they not have suited our national temper better than they do? In fact our conception of physics itself, and even the principles of chemistry, would probably differ from that of Westerners; and the facts we are now taught concerning the nature and function of light, electricity, and atoms might well have presented themselves in different form.

On our planet, we don't need superior extra-terrestrials. Uncle Sam does nicely.

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