A Tech Geek on Why We Need the Humanities

John Seely Brown argues that foregrounding the Humanities is our only hope of sustaining innovation in the United States.

A Tech Geek on Why We Need the Humanities

What's the Big Idea?


Have a latte with any Silicon Valley or Alley entrepreneur and you’ll be hit full force with this species’ zealous, Adam Smith–like faith in the “invisible hand” of technology. Tech itself, so goes the logic, will solve our human problems by making us exponentially more efficient and productive than we are now. This will happen almost by itself, as the market strives to produce better software and more mind-boggling gadgets.

Optimism is a survival mechanism for serial entrepreneurs – part of the standard equipment. It’s how they land on their feet again and again, ready to take new risks. Yet while there’s some truth in their perspective on technology, there is also tremendous danger.

Nationwide, as a result of America’s dismal performance on global measures of math and science education, there’s a billion-dollar push for STEM education: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. As with all educational reform movements, this one is set to throw the baby out with the bathwater, steamrolling over those curricular areas that don’t fit the acronym and aren’t so easily quantified – i.e. the arts and humanities. Uninformed by the human empathy and awareness that are the raison d’etre of these disciplines, technology is ethically neutral at best, anti-human at worst. But with the liberal arts as its animating spirit, technology’s potential benefits are limitless.

But then, I’m the choir. It’s refreshing therefore – even revolutionary – to hear the same sentiment expressed by programmers themselves. For example, John Maeda – who started out in life as a programmer – is spearheading an national initiative called “STEM to STEAM” (the ‘A’ stands for ‘Arts’). And John Seely Brown, a visionary technologist and innovation expert, argues that foregrounding the Humanities is our only hope of sustaining innovation in the United States. As physicist Michio Kaku has pointed out, the only jobs left to humans in the not-so-distant future will be those that computers can’t do – the kind that demand intuition and creative thinking.

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

It is self evident that technology’s presence in our lives is growing, and that we need to understand the logic of machines. Jaron Lanier, an early internet pioneer, has told us that computer languages come and go, but 21st century literacy means knowing how computers think – understanding their strengths and limitations as peripheral “minds.”

So let’s not get confused here – machines are not, as some would have us believe, the physical manifestation of human consciousness. They are tools, and as such, their value depends not on their own beauty, sophistication, or efficiency but on what we’ve designed them to do.

And our ability to design machines that improve our lives depends upon our ability to understand what humans are, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed. That’s the domain of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, and Radiohead – whether they come to us through word of mouth, parchment, iPod, or Twitter.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Weird science shows unseemly way beetles escape after being eaten

Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.

R. attenuata escaping from a black-spotted pond frog.

Surprising Science
  • A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
  • The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
  • Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
Keep reading Show less

We're creating pigs with human immune systems to study illness

Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?

Surprising Science

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.

Keep reading Show less

A new warning to sign to predict volcanic eruptions?

Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.

Volcano erupting lava, volcanic sky active rock night Ecuador landscape

Credit: Ammit via Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
  • The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
  • The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

Moral and economic lessons from Mario Kart

The design of a classic video game yields insights on how to address global poverty.

Quantcast