We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.
― Alan W. Watts
Culture pervades our lives as people and shapes how we connect to our World, Nation, Community, Jobs, and personal lives. Much of what we do is deeply influenced by a web of cultures our lives are embedded within. All of this highlights the importance of understanding how culture influence computation as culture often defines what is comfortable and automatic. In many cases culture is the permanent habits of our social constructs, and often defines practices that impede progress. Accepted cultural practices are usually done without thinking and applied almost mindlessly. If these practices are wrong, they are difficult to dislodge or improve upon.
The imagination is the goal of history. I see culture as an effort to literally realize our collective dreams.
― Terence McKenna
Culture is a powerful thing. It defines so much about the collective activity of groups of people. Culture defines a set of beliefs, practices and habits that are naturally accepted and reinforced by the collective action of the people. Some cultures are driven by biologyor fundamental human needs, but most are constructs to help regulate the structures that our collective actions are organized about. The fundamental values, moral code and behaviors of people are heavily defined by culture. If the culture is positive, the effect is resonant and amplifies the actions of people toward much greater achievements. If the culture is negative, the effect can undo and overwhelm much of the best that people are capable of. Invariably cultures are a mixture of positive and negative. Cultures persist for extremely long times and outlive those who set the cultural tone for groups. Cultures are set or can change slowly unless the group is subjected to an existential crisis. When a crisis is successfully navigated the culture that arose in its resolution is enshrined, and tends to persist without change until a new crisis is engaged.
Every culture has its southerners — people who work as little as they can, preferring to dance, drink, sing brawl, kill their unfaithful spouses; who have livelier gestures, more lustrous eyes, more colorful garments, more fancifully decorated vehicles, a wonderful sense of rhythm, and charm, charm, charm; unambitious, no, lazy, ignorant, superstitious, uninhibited people, never on time, conspicuously poorer (how could it be otherwise, say the northerners); who for all their poverty and squalor lead enviable lives — envied, that is, by work-driven, sensually inhibted, less corruptly governed northerners. We are superior to them, say the northerners, clearly superior. We do not shirk our duties or tell lies as a matter of course, we work hard, we are punctual, we keep reliable accounts. But they have more fun than we do … They caution[ed] themselves as people do who know they are part of a superior culture: we mustn’t let ourselves go, mustn’t descend to the level of the … jungle, street, bush, bog, hills, outback (take your pick). For if you start dancing on tables, fanning yourself, feeling sleepy when you pick up a book, developing a sense of rhythm, making love whenever you feel like it — then you know. The south has got you.
― Susan Sontag
We see all sorts of examples of the persistence of culture. The United States is still defined by the North-South divide that fractured during the Civil War. The same friction and hate that defined that war 150 years ago dominate our politics today. The culture of slavery persists in systematic racism and oppression. The white and black divide remains unhealed even though none of the people who enslaved or who were enslaved are still alive with many generations having passed. The United States is still defined by the Anglo-Saxon Protestant beliefs of the founding fathers. Their culture is dominant even after being overwhelmed in numbers of people and centuries of history. The dominant culture was formed in the crucible of history by the originating crisis for the Nation, the Revolutionary war. Companies and Laboratories are shaped by their original cultures and these habits and practices persist long after their originators have left, retired or died.
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
― Isaac Asimov
We all exist within a broad array of cultures all the way from our family to the entirety of humanity. Our culture is set by our biology, history and arc through life. This web of cultures connects together and runs much of our lives. We all have free will, but the decision to go against the culture tends to carry high costs to us personally. There are a number of things that influence culture including events, technology and new modes of engagement. Some events are part of natural world, such as disasters (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, famines, …). These events can stress people and existing cultures providing the sorts of crises that shape the future to be more resilient to future disasters. Human events such as wars, trade, and general political events provide both the impact of culture in causing or navigating events, as well as producing crises that shape cultural responses and evolution. We can continue down this line of thinking to ever-smaller cultures such as organizations and businesses are influenced by crises induced by the larger systems (natural or political). This web of culture continues to smaller and smaller scale all the way to communities (towns, regions, schools, families) each having a culture shaped heavily by other cultures or events. In every case a crisis is almost invariably necessary to induce change, cultures are resistant to change unless something painful provides direct evidence of the incapacity of existing culture to succeed.
Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.
― Joseph Fort Newton
The culture emerging in the World today is deeply stressing may subcultures. A combination of demographic changes, ethnic conflict, technology and economic systems are all spiraling toward crisis. People across the World sense the depth of the impending changes to the structure of society. In many cases the combination of demographics and economic changes is stressing large populations of people to an extent that they exude a wholesale revolt against existing cultures and systems. When this population is large enough it becomes a movement, and starts driving other populations toward crisis. These movements ultimately create an environment where other events are triggered such as wars. These in turn are a crisis that ultimately must be resolved, and induce enough pain that people willingly overthrow existing cultures and embrace new cultures that enable successful resolution. We may be spiraling toward this cascade of crises that are almost necessary for our cultures to adapt to the reality of today.
One of the most effective ways to learn about oneself is by taking seriously the cultures of others. It forces you to pay attention to those details of life which differentiate them from you.
― Edward T. Hall
Before plunging into the specifics of the culture of computation, we should discuss theculture of the broader scientific community. This culture exists within the broader network of cultures in society with give-and-take between them. In the past science has provided deep challenges to prevailing culture, and induced changes societal culture. Today the changes in main societal culture are challenging science. One key aspect of today’s culture wars is lack of support for expertise. One of the key rifts in society is mistrust of the elite and educated. The broader society is attacking and undermining educational institutions across the board. Scientific laboratories are similar in makeup and similarly under assault. Much of this broader assault is related to a general lack of trust. Some of this is a reaction to the surplus of trust granted science in the wake of its massive contributions to the resolution of World War 2 and the Cold War. These successes are waning in memory and science is now contracting for a distinguished role societally.
I work in a National Laboratory, and I have worked at a National Laboratory for my entire career. These Labs have strong cultures shaped by their history and work. Both Los Alamos and Sandia were born in the crucible of World War 2 and the Manhattan Project’s pursuit of an atomic bomb. The genesis of the third weapons’ Lab, Lawrence Livermore was also present albeit in an unexpressed form. During that war Los Alamos contained the origins of all three Labs. Los Alamos of course was the core of this revolving around Oppenheimer’s scientists pursuing the nuclear explosive part of the bomb. Sandia was contained within the engineering portion of Los Alamos that remained under military control. These identities are still evident in the Lab’s cultures today. At Los Alamos there is a scientific identity and habit that colors all engagements. Conversely the engineering character of Sandia is evident as is the shadow of General Groves’ priorities and approach on how the institution works today. Lawrence Livermore’s genesis was contained within a deep controversy associated with the follow-on to the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb. Many at Los Alamos opposed the hydrogen bomb, but Edward Teller was committed to this and ultimately created a Laboratory to pursue his vision. This adversarial, political and controversial nature still defines that Laboratory today.
The first step – especially for young people with energy and drive and talent, but not money – the first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.
― Chuck Palahniuk
Each of these identities firmly expresses itself in the scientific-technical cultures of the Labs. Los Alamos has a core identity as an experimental physics Laboratory. Engineering and computational approaches are also taken at Los Alamos, but the experimental approach is the most natural and favored by the culture. Livermore is more favorable toward a theoretical-computational approach within its basic culture. Experimental approaches are also seriously engaged, but in particular computation is more naturally supported by its culture. Sandia is an engineering culture, and borrowing from Los Alamos, a predominantly test-based culture being a compliment to experiments. As such theory, design and computation is a hard sell and culturally discouraged. None of these approaches is the “right” approach and the cultures all move them toward a certain approach to be favored over others.
These characters graft themselves onto how computation is accomplished at each Lab. The computational side of things is favored at Lawrence Livermore yielding better support from the institution. This comes in the form of support for research and prestige for those doing computation. At the same time the validation of computations suffers a bit relative to the other Labs, as does the rigor of computed results. Los Alamos was the birthplace of all three labs and computational work, but always puts computation in a subservient role compared to experiments. This leads to a mighty struggle between validation and calibration. Often calibration wins out so that computed results are sufficiently close to experiment. Sandia excels at process and rigor in the conduct of calculations, but struggles at other aspects (at least in a relative sense). The whole verification and validation approach to simulation quality comes from Sandia reflecting the rigor. At the same time institutional support and emphasis are weaker leading to long-term effects.
All this texture is useful to think about because it manifests itself in every place computational science is done today. The scientific culture of any institution is reflected in its emphasis, and approach to the conduct of science. The culture produces a natural set of priorities that define investments and acceptable quality. We can speak volumes about how computational work should be done, but the specific acuity to the message is related to preconceived notions about the aspects. For example, some places are more prone to focus on computing hardware as an investment. In terms of the competition for resources, the purchase of hardware is a priority, and a typical route for enhancement. This becomes important when trying to move into new “hot” areas. If the opportunity falls in line with the culture, investments flow and if it is out of line the institution will miss it.
Computational science is a relatively new area of endeavor. It is at most 70 years old as practiced at Los Alamos; it is a new area of focus in most places. Sometime it is practiced at an institution and added to the repertoire as a new innovative way of doing work. In all these cases the computational work adopts the basic culture of the institution it exists within. It then differentiates based on the local conditions usually dominated by whatever the first acknowledged success is. One of the key aspects of a culture is origin stories or mythological achievements. Origins are almost invariably fraught situations with elements of crisis. These stories pervade the culture and define what success looks like and how investments in the future are focused.
Where I work at Sandia, the origin story is dominated by early success with massively parallel computers. The greatest success was the delivery of a computer, Red Storm. As a result the culture is obsessed with computer hardware. The path to glory and success runs through hardware; a focus on hardware is culturally accepted and natural for the organization. It is a strong predisposition. At Lawrence Livermore the early stages of the Laboratory were full of danger and uncertainty. Early in the history of the Lab there was a huge breakthrough in weapons design. It used computational modeling, and the lead person in the work went on to huge professional success (Lab Director). This early success became a blueprint for others and an expected myth to be repeated. A computational study and focus was always expected and accepted by the Lab. At Los Alamos all roads culturally lead to the Manhattan Project. The success in that endeavor has defined the Laboratory ever since. The manner of operation and approach to science adopted then is blueprint for success at that Laboratory. The multitude of crises starting with the end of the Cold War, spying, fires, and scandal have all weakened the prevailing culture, and undermined the future.
In each case the myths and legends of past success provide the basis for the culture and the means of understanding why a place is what the place it is. Old myths and legends have to be replaced to change the culture, and this can only happen in a crisis of sufficient magnitude to challenge the existing culture. We can’t usually manage to think about what culture arises from the resolution of a crisis, we are too busy surviving to make the best use of the opportunity.
Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.
― Albert Camus