Column |  Drying stubble with abacuses

Column | Drying stubble with abacuses

One of my guilty pleasures is on Instagram to the clips of letsdoubledutch to look. From the perspective of an outsider, comedian Derek Mitchell mocks Dutch customs, Dutch English, and Dutch itself, which so often sounds like nonsense to foreigners. Sometimes Dutch also has expressions that he finds surprisingly beautiful. Last week it was ‘feeling like a warm bath’, translated by Mitchell as ‘feeling welcome, safe and warm, perhaps after a long time in which you have not felt that way’. And sometimes your mother tongue itself can feel like a warm bath, especially if you immerse yourself in it again after a longer period of time. Professor of Dutch Studies Jacqueline Bel recently mentioned the value of language that cannot be expressed in monetary terms in her contribution to the discussion about the ‘anglicization’ of universities.

What would happen if we (even further) neglect the Dutch language? What if we no longer speak and teach these at universities? What if, partly because of this, the attention paid to it in (secondary) schools shrinks? What if the love for Dutch literature also fades away? And what if we do not enrich Dutch with new Dutch words for newly discovered phenomena or technological gadgets? Who wouldn’t regret that?

Well, the ‘dry stubble’ who approach the world merely with the ‘abacus’ in hand, says Bel. They see the Netherlands as a private company that needs companies for its profitability and people who want to work in such companies. Preferably in high-tech companies and because the Dutch don’t often feel like doing that, we have to bring future engineers and scientists from abroad. Voilà, the reason to teach bachelor’s and/or master’s education in those subjects in English – the language of science, after all. Or at least, one of the reasons, in addition to the perverse incentive that foreign students also bring in money directly.

Versatile technology

But stop it anyway, says Bel. Because: what is really important to people? And she is of course right that everything of value is defenseless against dry stubble with abacuses. However, those who merely shift beads in an abacus are equally ignoring the versatility and scope of technology itself.

Of course, their reasoning doesn’t come out of the blue. Thanks to science and technology, people have become healthier, more mobile and happier on average, and their life expectancy has increased dramatically. You can also argue that money is needed to continue that trend. However, you then ignore the tunnel vision, prejudices and irrational motives that also play a role in whether or not people will use technology, and how. Moreover, you forget all those aspects of life and society that are, conversely, distorted or refined by scientific insights and technology.

A poorly shaved chin

It is already in the (Dutch) language itself. The abacus was a technological discovery. And whether ‘dry stubble’ is reminiscent of a freshly mown field or a poorly shaven chin: in both cases tools were involved. Besides, that so many people Max Havelaar by Multatuli, including Batavus Droogstoppel, is thanks to the printing press – a fifteenth-century discovery that research funders would now call a ‘disruptive innovation’ and ‘high impact’ breakthrough.

Or take MRI and CT scanners that can provide razor-sharp images of our interior, thus influencing how we see ourselves as people. Look how we are becoming more and more ‘cyborgs’ via stick, glasses, route planner and brain implant. See how chip technology and resulting social media are changing our relationships. Read how telescopes and satellites showed that the Earth is just a speck of dust in a universe in which trillions of galaxies roam. You may even wonder whether some people do not cling so tightly to their abacuses in order not to be overwhelmed by a feeling of insignificance.

In short, it would be a shame if scientists from different disciplines allowed themselves to be pitted against each other by juggling abacuses. Bel is right: anyone who has a poor command of Dutch ignores the finer points of Dutch law, which have been developed in a long tradition. And when historical, Dutch-language documents become unreadable, an associated shared history is lost. But this also applies to the documents that describe the manufacturing industry in Brabant, the history of technology company Philips and the technology giant ASML that emerged from it and is so popular with dry stubble. And would we really just lose out on income if technology courses were to shrink and ASML were to disappear from the Netherlands, as Bel asks rhetorically? Or will the interaction between technology developers and researchers and the rest of society disappear, including people and scientists who think about the applications, consequences and effects of technology from a multitude of perspectives?

In other words: the deep interconnectedness of technology and society requires much more cooperation between disciplines and an eye for each other’s needs. Perhaps an ASML e-book prize is a start?

Margriet van der Heijden is a physicist and professor of science communication at TU Eindhoven.