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.

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

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