Humanities are Crucial for Technological Innovation
The men and women who run America’s tech giants are accused of many sins, including building platforms and devices that can invade our privacy and even degrade our democracy. But one other commonality among these masters of the code universe is rarely discussed. Virtually none of these people — Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, et cetera — has a background in the humanities, such as literature and history.
If their behavior is any guide, few of these titans have seemingly taken on board the questions at the heart of, say, philosophy and the social or biological sciences: What does it means to be human, what it means to be a citizen, and what our responsibilities are to one another other. Instead, we have some pretty selfish, ahistorical and even post-human notions of ownership, consumption and meaning at these companies.
Their transgressions are particularly pertinent now — we learned last month that Facebook “expects” to be fined up to $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission (it could be more) for consumer privacy violations, and last week Uber filed for an initial public offering, leading to its drivers (and Lyft’s) in a number of American cities going on strike, simply demanding livable incomes, and job security, among other things. We must now consider why people behind these conglomerates have been indifferent to the injustices they have been enabling.
In college and graduate school, our tech overlords almost all majored in computer science or business. But if these tech leaders had any passionate knowledge of the humanities, they might have been less likely to treat our data as a commodity to be used for their own purposes, and that siphoning such data creates a terrible and inhuman dynamic. (Take the Facebook user data gathered by Cambridge Analytica, for instance.) They might not have blithely violated its 2011 privacy consent decree, leading to this gargantuan penalty or stood back when hate speech ran rampant on their platforms.
(As T.S. Eliot wrote in a line that neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg likely have heard or read: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”)
I am not the only one who argues that arts and humanities training could create much better technologists. In a 2018 study, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called for an integration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics with these less numerical disciplines. And in designing technology, empathy and other human-scale values are now being regularly championed, if only for their market value. (How can you sell good “user experience” if you know little about the users?) And when the robots come for our jobs, plenty are now making the point that human creative intelligence may be one of the only things still needed in the labor market.
There’s the retort, of course, that there are lots of dreadful humanities and biological science majors among us (Lachlan Murdoch who now runs Fox News majored in philosophy at Princeton University). One might also ask: What are the chances of building a tech unicorn if you studied Chaucer or Weber rather than computer science?
But my argument isn’t that only English majors should run tech incubators, but that our digital masters should find a place in their lives and minds for Plato and Margaret Mead. The problem is also that when the tech overclass does read, it may well be bestselling business or “resilience” tomes like “Grit” or “Lean In,” which call for harder and harder work and harder and harder skins. What if, instead, they went to literature? As a study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research has shown, literature makes us better at comprehending other people’s feelings, which should be not only high-minded but a useful skill in both a leader and an employee.
It opens up certain questions. If the gig economy’s “winners” had studied Dickens or labor history, would they have fought so nastily to maintain that their drivers are “side hustling” concierge-like contractors with few employment rights? A consideration of feminist literature and history (Jane Addams’ “20 Years At Hull House”) or even a textbook on the basics of maternal biology, might have kept Lyft from infamously exulting over a driver picking up riders after she went into labor, and then Lyft-ing herself to the hospital to give birth. And if those who insist on creepily long hours from their employees had at least read Marx, they might not snicker so affectionately at the T-shirt slogan “9 to 5 is for the weak.” Today’s tech jobs with “nap pods” and campus environments so their workers almost never leave work evokes Marx’s account of how long work days rob people of their “normal, moral and physical conditions of development.”
This is part of a broader problem, of course. In 1971, there were fewer than two business majors for every English major in American colleges. As of 2016, it’s more than 8 to 1 and growing.
When the inevitable arguments are marshaled to continue arts and humanities university programs and nonprofit funding — that they make people better critical thinkers — we could add to them that these fields could be part of an antidote to some of the moral rot, including permitting hate speech on their platforms, of Facebook, Twitter and the rest. After all, learning this would be engaging with what the Romantics called “the sympathetic imagination,” an idea that would be hopefully directed not just at themselves but also toward other people.
Alissa Quart is the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America,” out in paperback this week.
Co-published with The San Francisco Chronicle.