“The open society, the unrestricted access to knowledge, the unplanned and uninhibited association of men for its furtherance — these are what may make a vast, complex, ever growing, ever changing, ever more specialized and expert technological world, nevertheless a world of human community.”
Science and the Common Understanding is a transcript of Oppenheimer’s six-part 1953 BBC Reith Lectures, and you can listen to the recording of Part 6, The Sciences and Man’s Community on the BBC website.
I came to this when looking for thinking to attach to my Obligation to Explain poster — this led me to reading about open society, which led me to Oppenheimer about whom, I’m ashamed to say, I otherwise knew very little.
Science and the Common Understanding is a fascinating read: it’s dense, and demands concentration, but it’s as eloquent a rumination on science and society as I’ve ever read. Here’s a passage from the sixth lecture — the one you can listen to at the BBC — where Oppenheimer talks about the “house of science”:
It is not arranged in a line nor a square nor a circle nor a pyramid, but with a wonderful randomness suggestive of unending growth and improvisation. Not many people live in the house, relatively speaking — perhaps if we count all its chambers and take residence requirements quite lightly, one tenth of one per cent, of all the people in this world probably, by any reasonable definition, far fewer. And even those who live here live elsewhere also, live in houses where the rooms are not labelled atomic theory or genetics or the internal constitution of the stars, but quite different names like power and production and evil and beauty and history and children and the word of God.
We go in and out; even the most assiduous of us is not bound to this vast structure. One thing we find throughout the house: there are no locks; there are no shut doors; wherever we go there are the signs and usually the words of welcome. It is an open house, open to all comers.
Brilliantly put. And also a fairly decent explanation about how many of us feel about technology, free software, and society. If you have a moment, I recommend you download the PDF of the entire series and read it.