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College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

The Three Cultures and Children's Television

Richard J. McGowan

In October, 1950, Alan Turing's marvelously provocative paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," appeared in the philosophical journal, Mind. That article marked the introduction, in print, of Turing's operational definition of thinking or "intelligence," and made the further suggestion that machines could think. Turing's definition depended on what is now known as the imitation principle: "if a computer, on the basis of written replies to questions, could not be distinguished from a human respondent, then 'fair play' would oblige one to say that it must be 'thinking' " (415). The upshot of Turing's article was controversy combined with a certain suspicion that his claims, if allowed to stand, meant that human beings were no different from machines. It seems to me that Turing may have exacted his revenge on his adversaries, for instance, Michael Polyani, in the form of children's television programming.

Turing's revenge, so-called, has occurred through an evolution in children's programming that began in about 1959, the year C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures appeared in print. This evolution has involved a shift from the natural to the technological as a focal point for the images children receive. In his 1963 essay, The Two Cultures: A Second Look, C. P. Snow wrote that "it is probably too early to speak of a third culture already in existence. But I am convinced that this is coming" (70-71). If we allow such distinctions to be made as between cultures, we have seen the third culture emerge in children's programming. The first two cultures are those of the artist and the natural scientist; the third is that of the technologist, as Porush says. 1 I will suggest that children's programming shows these three cultures, that currently preeminence is given the technological culture, 2 and that the technological imagery ultimately restricts children's perceptions of the world.

Among the messages of children's television is the lesson that tools - for that is what machines are - have a life and independence of their own. This elevation of tools to the status of living beings ignores and tramples upon a distinction germane to the three cultures made by St. Thomas Aquinas. He spoke of the liberales antes, the "free arts," and the mechanicae antes, the "mechanical arts." 3 The free arts point beyond themselves and do not necessarily serve human ends. The mechanicae artes serve human ends and their objects "borrow" their way of being from human invention. The technological imagery of children's programming misrepresents that distinction so that children see human beings as constrained by their own inventions. Reason and responsibility are presented as the domain of machines, not human beings.

The Technological Culture Emerges

If we accept Snow's claims, prior to 1963, there were two predominant cultural modalities. The artist and the natural scientist were both seekers in a liberalis artes. The mystery of life, the power of discovery, a sense of wonder characterized their pursuits. They explicitly and implicitly recognized both the importance of reason and its limits, standing in awe of the forces which defy being human. Command of nature was not the goal of these two cultures; knowledge was never only or primarily instrumental to human ends.

According to Snow, the original two cultures could trade riposte, but they were not antagonistic nor openly contemptuous of one another. But this situation no longer prevails. Originally, children's programming maintained the harmony of the two cultures. The long history of animal naturalism could be found in such programs as Lassie. The soft scientific narratives and documentaries of Disney, such as The Incredible Journey, used animals as purveyors of scientific knowledge. These shows were staples of an age without a technological culture. They blended the efforts of the scientist and the artist.

Fantasy and natural science were allies in children's shows. Fantastic naturalism, fantasy given a natural explanation, gave rise to children's heroes such as Superman and the Fantastic Four. Superman came from another planet and the differences between Krypton and Earth accounted for his super powers. The Fantastic Four were wonderfully gifted mutants, but explicable in natural terms. Heroes such as those were products of forces outside of human control and design.

Batman existed, too, in comics and then on television, just like Superman. Batman, however, was quite human and not at all a "natural freak." The comic-book Batman solved problems by using a lot of brains, a bit of brawn, and some special devices, products of applied science. The television Batman was different: he was a parody of the comic book Batman in large part because his technology was so dated. An example of this sort occurred when Batman and Robin climbed the side of a skyscraper using drain plungers strapped to their feet. The comic book Batman's relationship to his tools - they were subservient to his reason-became funny on T.V. Then, too, Batman's tools made for drab T.V.: they were not fantastic enough and they did not have enough power.

The image which the incipient technological culture strove for was the elevation of tools to the status accorded objects in the liberales artes, with all the power, wonder, and mystery such objects deserve. An early image hinted at the equality technology would have with the natural in the form of Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman. Spiderman gained his powers when bitten by a natural creature, a spider, which had inadvertently been launched into space. The result, impossible without the advanced technology of rocketry and space probes, was a human being with spider abilities proportional to his human size.

Technology was struggling in children's programming to have a life of its own. The first attempts at a life and independence of machines were farcical. Herbie, the Love Bug and My Mother, the Car gave life, albeit absurdly, to machines. Kids knew full well that Volkswagens could not think and My Mother, the Car gave whole new meaning to the notion of death and reincarnation. We laughed at this image of technology, but we were absorbed by technology, too. Naturalism was being supplanted by technology in children's programming. Furthermore, the earlier images of machines showed machines which looked like machines. Robots looked and moved like machines in the older technological programs such as Flash Gordon. Part of the charm and attraction of the present Dr. Who and even Star Wars can be attributed, in part, to their machine-looking machines. As we know, the technological culture's images evolved to the point where machines appeared and acted like beings worthy of study in a "free art."

First in the evolution of an independent technological culture were the technologically dependent heroes. The derring-do of James West, an extraordinary human being who relies on technology to save the day, or the antics of the absent-minded professor who uses flubber to gain control of his life, replaced our unusual but nonetheless naturally explicable heroes Superman and Spiderman. Despite the fact that technology existed independently and unattached to its human user, the status of the human user became more and more dependent on the available gadgetry. The stage was set for one small increment to extend human capacity by making machines a part of us. Thus, our culture gave birth to the Bionic Man and his counterpart, the Bionic Woman.

Now our heroes were not simply human, but machine-human. Technological advance and gadgetry did not exist separately from their users, but in them. The Bionic Man could perform all those marvelous feats because he and his technology were inseparable. Solutions to problems were no longer couched in natural terms, as with Disney movies, or in human reason, as with Batman but in technological terms of the human machine. Because of technology, we could build Steve Austin stronger and better: his identity came from technology, quite the reverse of My Mother, the Car where the machine's identity came from the human being.

To extend this development, the human being could not merely have parts replaced: heroes had to be replaced in toto by machines. We now have K.I.T.T. in Knightrider, a fully intelligent, responsive machine, and we have Decepticon, Voltron, and a host of other "auto-bots," machines which live independently of human control or pro-gram. Many children's shows no longer feature natural heroes but machines which appear more human and more grand than we are.

Thus, my four-year-old son, upon watching a transformer get "zapped," asked me, "Is it dead, Daddy?" 4 (and prompted this paper). Turing's claims are alive and well in the minds of our children.

The Artist, the Natural Scientist, and the Technologist

Children's programming and culture have evolved to the point where technology and its imagery abound. Children are bombarded by images of machine life, and images of the artist and natural scientist have receded. Often, the image of the artist is consigned to a vision of magic and fantasy that only the reductionist perspective of a mechanical art could devise. Paradigms of the three cultures, He-Man, Transformers, and either Scooby-Doo or 3-2-1 Contact will illustrate my assertions. A comparison of these shows suggests that human reason and responsibility are being joined with or replaced by technology, in most of the programming children are offered.

When He-Man holds his powersword aloft and yells, "By the power of Grayskull, I am the power," he means to call from the netherworld those forces that aid him. He-Man's powersword is a magical and mythical sword: it is supposed to reach beyond human capacity and experience to a source of power beyond human designs. Fantasy and magic are offered as the means to solve problems. So at first sight, the show seems to offer a non-technological slant in the form of magic. But what shall we make of the proffered magic?

Magic, at its best, says something about the unconscious, about the mystery of life, about that which eludes our understanding. Magic, even as "mere" entertainment, transforms and at least suggests some-thing mystical. 5 Illusion in the magician is so appealing because the magician does so much with so little effort. The gentleness of the art belies its effects and defies our understanding. But where in He-Man are these characteristics of magic presented? In show after show, He-Man gains great strength and does physical battle with his adversaries. The magic maintains a superficial connection with the mystical, but problems are solved the old-fashioned, militaristic, non-magical way. 6 There is none of the transforming elegance of magic.

Further, where is any notion of the truly mystical? He-Man is frequently called upon to protect his sorceress and source of power, though the truly transcendent needs no such protection from mere mortals. Mystical forces work through human beings to protect them-selves but are greater than their instruments, even human instruments. He-Man is no such instrument; he is equal to the forces of magic and he knows it: "I am the power." The image of magic presented in He-Man  is a reduction of magic to serve human ends.

But if magic is reduced in He-Man, humanity is reduced in Transformers, a show featuring "autobots." Here we have reached the state that I've called Turing's revenge, the elevation of machines to human status. Further, the replacement of human reason and responsibility by machines attaches to the concept of an autobot. A recent typical episode of Transformers shows exactly what the technological images attempt.

The opening scene shows Danny, one of the show's few human characters, writhing in the throes of a nightmare. During a close-up of his pained face, the viewing audience hears a voice comforting him. I, as a father, empathized with that compassionate voice. The scene opens to reveal an autobot sitting at Danny's bedside. Danny's father enters the room later and acknowledges that he cannot provide the relief Danny seeks. Danny's father also acknowledges that the autobot stands the best chance of eliminating Danny's recurrent nightmare, "since he respects you so much."

This episode's plot turns on the premise that a nightmare-inducing machine had been affixed to Danny. The machine, itself controlled by other machines, namely, evil autobots, not only induces nightmares, but can turn those nightmares into reality. By the strength of his will, Danny resists the nightmarish images, thus preventing catastrophe. However, as one of the good autobots says, in an inadvertent yet telling statement, "The images are too overpowering for Danny to control." This is as telling a statement about the nature of these shows as one can ask for.

Humanity was powerless to resist either the nightmare machine or the evil autobots. The individual failures of Danny and his father to confront and control the machines, representative of technology, present perfect metaphors for much of children's programming. Who saves Danny and prevents his dreams from wreaking havoc on the world? It is not human reason or will, nor human efficacy, but another machine that is the saving grace of humanity. The technological culture's imagery presents technology itself as the best hope for over-coming what threatens humanity. But the imagery also shows us that what threatens humanity is, ultimately, the technological culture itself.

In the previously mentioned episode of Transformers, we see two sources of threats to humanity and the technological culture, namely, the fantasy of Danny's dreams and the technology of evil autobots. The non-scientific culture, thus the artist, proves inadequate against the power of technology in Transformers. The forces of magic prove inadequate in He-Man, too, for the problem-solving there is the same old knock-'em-down-till-they-can't-get-up-anymore method. There is no transformation of the problem's context, no reframing of the countervailing forces involved in the conflict, and finally, little difference between He-Man and his adversaries. The proffered solutions in He-Man ignore the transforming and transcendent power of magic so that He-Man's powersword becomes a very non-mythic, non-magical technologically potent tool. Yet, the threat in He-Man emanates from Skeletor, a fantasy figure.

The threat which the artist, now crudely associated with a simplistic notion of magic and fantasy, brings to the technological culture is openly displayed in Ghostbusters. This cartoon presents the battle of the two principal cultures of our day and age: technologically dependent and adept human beings fight non-scientific ghosts and apparitions. The technologically equipped ghostbusters vanquish the ghosts and apparitions as the good autobots vanquished Danny's dreams and the evil autobots. The supremacy of the technological culture over the other cultures is reinforced by these images as the technological culture goes unrestrained and unchecked in children's programming.

Certainly the natural scientist, restrained by an awareness of limits both in intellect and will, does not challenge the supremacy of technology in children's shows. Programs presenting images of the moderate naturalist, searching for knowledge, have all but vanished, and with that vanishing, reason and responsibility seem to have been shunted to no-man's land. In the prevailing atmosphere, reason must be confined to applied science and human ends. Reason, as a means for recognizing our ignorance yet transcending the limits of that ignorance, is infrequently displayed.

But there are a few exceptions. Scooby-Doo and 3-2-1 Contact provide in structure and character what may best be described as images of the natural scientist. Both these shows afford a place for reason to prevail as an effective, wide-ranging, problem-solving aspect of being human. They suggest that solutions to our problems reside within us, and not outside in the form of technology. Responsibility for our situation is within us, then, too.

Reason in the two shows just mentioned is not confined to applied science or strict end-oriented thinking. Rather, it is shown to involve hunches, intuition, and precognitive, non-quantificational methodology. Reason, in short, implies discretion and openness to knowledge. Whereas the technologist looks to knowledge only as it can serve human ends, knowledge in Scooby-Doo and 3-2-1 Contact is not so narrowly constrained. Knowledge, not machinery, has a life of its own and from that life, we gain for ourselves a life of the mind. The life of the mind is a life "borrowed" from that which transcends our purposes. As a consequence, we do not have and can never hope to have complete control over our lives. Scooby-Doo and 3-2-1 Contact acknowledge this, especially as luck plays a role in each show. Harmony between the artist and the scientist, seekers in the free arts, can be maintained.

The apparent antagonism between artist and scientist in the standard plot of Scooby-Doo is always resolved. Typically, the program shows a ghost or apparition threatening someone. Scooby and his pals arrive on the scene and, using hunches, seemingly irrelevant bits of information that turn out to be clues, and their own intelligence, they expose the ghosts and apparitions that frequently appear as elaborate hoaxes. While Scooby-Doo presents a rather facile image of magic in its ghosts and while its solutions are entirely too pat, the show makes it clear that human reason is responsible for problem-solving.

Yet reason alone never solves a Scooby mystery. Luck always lends a hand in the form of stray papers, accidental discovery of hidden trapdoors and passageways, and serendipitous bumbling by Scooby and Shaggy. The implicit limit placed on reason and, consequently, the human being is consistent with the cultures of the artist and scientist. Further, the struggle to remove the source of conflict shows trans-formation. While a problem appears initially as a search for a ghost or apparition, it is resolved when an alternative hypothesis is advanced. Scooby and his friends openly acknowledge that they initially misunderstood the problem. By contrast, when technological problems, such as evil autobots, are overcome using other technological means, namely, good autobots, there is no transformation and no use of reason in moving toward resolution.

All of what is good about Scooby-Doo - the pride of place accorded reason, acknowledgment of its limits, the role of non-human forces in human destiny - exists in public T.V.'s 3-2-1-Contact. Of course, the show is a science show and deals in natural explanation. The scientists who explain, though, constantly remind the viewer of human ignorance. In explaining phenomena, the narrators explain to the audience that "we are trying to find out …" and "we don't know for sure, but we think. …" The gentle, respectful, and plaintive voice of a searcher in free art speaks on 3-2-1 Contact. Reason, in its richness and with its limits, is presented as a means to help us learn about what we do not and may never know.

The show's youngsters are not averse to using technology or sophisticated, scientific instrumentation. They use computers and other machines, but the technology is always there to serve the end of knowledge. Technology is treated as human invention and never given the same status as the truth it might help reveal. Finally, technology is not presented as the only means of identifying and understanding the world or ourselves nor is the show antagonistic toward the artist. Technology has a borrowed and dependent existence on 3-2-1 Contact.

It is exactly this subservience to the human that technological culture resents. It is precisely the independence and life of machines that the technological culture, its images to the contrary, wants but cannot have. Cultures which place human ends above all and define knowledge precisely and only in terms of human purpose are enslaved by their own limits. 7 In them, technology rather than reason defines morality. The artist's way of expressing and exploring reality is lost to such cultures; only a facile distortion of reality can take its place. The natural scientist's way of reframing problems and shifting perspectives - responding, in other words, to what is independent of being human - is closed to such a culture. The kind of culture that is at odds with the artist and ignores the natural scientist will not have "free arts" but be bounded ever so tightly by its own inventions. Thus, can it restrict and damage our children!7


1 David Porush in The Soft Machine implies this division without consciously developing it. He says in his Preface that "literature is as much the product of the technological and scientific milieu as it is of the artistic one" (x). In his choice of words, he suggests that the technological and scientific are, even if of one non-artistic milieu, different enough to demand naming separately. [Back]

2 Children's shows where technology is necessary or plays a leading role for plot and structure include G.I. Joe, Transformers, Inspector Gadget, Silver-hawks, Inhumanoids, Bionic Six, Real Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, She-Ra, and at times, He-Man and Thundercats. [Back]

3 See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1-11, 34, 1, ad 3, 57, 3, ad 1, 2, and 3; I Metaphysics 3c. [Back]

4 Since I could hardly believe my son asked me that question, I mentioned the incident to a friend. She informed me that her three-year-old son had asked her the same question. [Back]

5 See G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy or C. S. Lewis's The Allegory of Love. The relationship between magic and religion has been written about at length. [Back]

6 The use of magic to serve human ends and only to serve human ends, consistent with the reductionist thinking of the technological culture, is exemplified by MASK Toys. These toys are vehicles with concealed weaponry since "illusion is the ultimate weapon." [Back]

7 This is a much revised and reformulated version of a paper presented at the 1987 Popular Culture Association meeting. I am indebted to Geraldine DeLuca for her many helpful comments. [Back]

Works Cited

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. London: John Lane, 1909.

Hodges, Andrew. Alan Turing: The Enigma. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936.

Porush, David. The Soft Machine. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures: and a Second Look. London: Cambridge UP, 1959.