A Tech Geek on Why We Need the Humanities

Computer Scientist and Researcher

John Seely Brown is a visiting scholar and advisor to the Provost at University of Southern California(USC) and the Independent Co-Chairman of theDeloitte Center for the Edge. 

Prior to that he was the Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)—a position he held for nearly two decades.  While head of PARC, Brown expanded the role of corporate research to include such topics as organizational learning, knowledge management, complex adaptive systems, and nano/mems technologies.  He was a cofounder of the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL).  His personal research interests include the management of radical innovation, digital youth culture, digital media, and new forms of communication and learning. 

John, or as he is often called—JSB— is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and of AAAS and a Trustee of theMacArthur Foundation.  He serves on numerous public boards (Amazon, Corning, and Varian Medical Systems) and private boards of directors. 

He has published over 100 papers in scientific journals and was awarded the Harvard Business Review's 1991 McKinsey Award for his article, "Research that Reinvents the Corporation" and again in 2002 for his article “Your Next IT Strategy.”

In 2004 he was inducted in the Industry Hall of Fame.

With Paul Duguid he co-authored the acclaimed book The Social Life of Information (HBS Press, 2000) that has been translated into 9 languages with a second addition in April 2002, and with John Hagel he co-authored the book The Only Sustainable Edge which is about new forms of collaborative innovation. He is currently working on two new books – The New Culture of Learning with Professor Doug Thomas at USC and The Big Shift: From Pull to Push with John Hagel. 

JSB received a BA from Brown University in 1962 in mathematics and physics and a PhD from University of Michigan in 1970 in computer and communication sciences.  He has received five honorary degrees including:  May 2000, Brown University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science Degree; July 2001, the London Business School conferred an Honorary Doctor of Science in Economics; May 2004, Claremont Graduate University granted him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters; May 2005, University of Michigan awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, and May 2009, North Carolina State University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree. 

 

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

John Seely Brown: What has done more to kind of change my understanding of what I do that was so far from my original training might just be simply reduced to the fact that kind of a pathetic conversation I had a long time ago with my mother when I was ten years old, 12 years old.  She was trying to get me to read.  I held this book and I said, you know, “Mom, . . .” and she came from the fine arts, etcetera. . . . I said, “You know, this 300-page book could be reduced to a half a dozen equations.  When you hand me a set of equations, I’ll read it.  I’m not going to spend the time to read this book.”

Well, about 15 years later I realized that fine literature, museums, paintings, etcetera, can have a nuance to them that I never understood.  They actually breathed life in a way I didn’t even know about that we didn’t really capture in physics and mathematics like I first was brought up.  And so I would say the joy of New York, there’s the amount of art in this city, the amount of literature, the number of reading clubs that I happen to kind of stumbled into where people take very seriously, you know, close reading of books, close reading of art, close reading of music.  That imbues a kind of nuance, a kind of texture, that often we get stripped away in kind of a very much of an instrumental engineering point of view.

I think if we really want to re-instate a true state of innovation in the United States, we have to find a new way to bring the humanities much more forward into our thinking.  And I think that humanities has some responsibility of actually figuring out how to help us imbue nuance into how we see the world.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


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