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Opinion: Liberal arts and tech

By Julio Franco · 6 replies
Nov 14, 2017
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  1. The tech industry’s lack of diversity and mind-numbing sea of sameness when it comes to opinions are, unfortunately, now widely recognized. But there is a subtler, and lesser-known limitation in tech that, I believe, is also having a devastating influence on the industry: the lack of liberal arts graduates.

    As the proud graduate of a quintessential liberal arts program—Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies, which combines literature, philosophy, theology, natural sciences, history and more into a Renaissance-style general education via a study of the “great books” of both Western and Eastern civilizations—I’m unquestionably biased in my perspective. Nevertheless, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the lack of intelligent reflection, discussion, and debate on why and for what purpose technologies are being developed and applied in tech industry products and services needs to be addressed. Even an ethnographically diverse set of engineers and other tech-focused individuals can’t always see, nor understand, some of the challenges that today’s tech products are bringing to the fore.

    On the other hand, while no two liberal arts programs are the same, the one consistent thread across them is that they teach people to think critically, ask these essential why questions, and work through the implications and longer-term impact of ideas and concepts, particularly as they relate to people. Applying these kinds of human-centric principles to tech could make a profoundly important impact.

    Consider, for example, where social media has brought us as a society. From a scientific and programming perspective, it’s clearly impressive to be able to not only link billions of people around the world and let them communicate with one another, but to use advanced computer science to create algorithms that can continuously feed each one of us with the kind of information that specifically interests each one of us (in theory, at least).

    Given the already enormous impact that technology has in our present lives and the inevitable increases that will occur, there needs to be more thoughtful analyses about the roles technology can and should play.

    However, a liberal arts major familiar with works like Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” John Mill’s “On Liberty” essay, or even the work of ancient Greek historians, might have been able to recognize much sooner the potential for the “tyranny of the majority” or other disconcerting sociological phenomena that are embedded into the very nature of today’s social media platforms. While seemingly democratic at a superficial level, a system in which the lack of structure means that all voices carry equal weight, and yet popularity, not experience or intelligence, actually drives influence, is clearly in need of more refinement and thought than it was first given.

    Beyond these more philosophical debates, there are an increasing number of very practical concerns around the ethical application of technology in fields ranging from medicine to transportation to basic data analysis. Toss in the mind-numbing array of questions that arise from technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, and it’s clear that there’s a lot more discussion that needs to happen around how technologies get applied, rather than just how to build them.

    Given the already enormous impact that technology has in our present lives and the inevitable increases that will occur, there needs to be more thoughtful analyses about the roles technology can and should play. It’s also important to recognize that the kinds of exciting technological developments that we have now (and will have much more of in the future) affect all people—not just the types who are currently doing much of the development work. That’s why it’s so critical to increase the diversity of opinions, experiences, and perspectives of people working to bring this technological future to life.

    The greater the variety of voices—not only from a gender, race and ethnographic perspective, but an educational one as well—the more balanced, successful and long-lasting the choir of “future creators” will be.

    Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm. You can follow him on Twitter . This article was originally published on Tech.pinions.

    Permalink to story.

  2. jobeard

    jobeard TS Ambassador Posts: 12,417   +1,408

    MOST INTERESTING, especially the comment “tyranny of the majority” or other disconcerting sociological phenomena.

    We've fallen directly into 1984 Orwellian outcome where society serves technology and when the bell rings we salivate. It's so bad that Hawaii passed a law forbidding "distracted walking watching a cellphone" (personally doubt it will have any impact however). There's a restaurant now in Los Angeles that offers a discount if all parties at the table will surrender their cellphones while dining -- BEGGING everyone to be in the moment. IMO, it's heart breaking to see multiple adults at a table texting someone not present :sigh:

    The study of physics tells us "nature abhors a vacuum" and thus entropy will cause it to be filled with something. Having few interests, hobbies or activities then quickly leads to the social media where interactions are substituted for meaningful relationships and activities. Even here on TS, there's lots of comments on all kinds of subjects, but over the past months, technical issues and problem solving has been waning significantly.

    It will be interesting to see how history will view the social media vs the political circumstances in which it arose.
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2017
    EndRessentiment likes this.
  3. psycros

    psycros TS Evangelist Posts: 2,378   +2,034

    There are plenty of liberal arts majors in tech. Unfortunately they've all been assigned to working on user interfaces.
  4. BSim500

    BSim500 TS Evangelist Posts: 540   +1,037

    I think the author is over-prescribing his own personal traits onto the same fellow liberal arts graduates who didn't see any ongoing problems coming any better than anyone else. Half of these supposed latent "the impact of technology in the modern world" prophets despite being perfectly healthy with no physical or mental disability, now need disability aids to cross a road safely due to the same social-addiction problem they're supposed to be smart enough to warn everyone else of in advance - that's how much "tech foresight" they have in actual practise...
    JaredTheDragon likes this.
  5. jobeard

    jobeard TS Ambassador Posts: 12,417   +1,408

    @BSim500 OMG; what a heartless, narrow minded comment. Sure glad I didn't have to work in your company/department
  6. JaredTheDragon

    JaredTheDragon TS Guru Posts: 477   +317

    I have to agree with BSim500 and disagree with Bob O'Donnell here on one point: Liberal Arts degrees do NOT teach critical thinking, or not very well, and certainly not as a focal point. We can see this in every field, from physics to painting, from literature to polemics to music. I know maybe five real critical thinkers in the entire world (who are better than me, I should say). Most people simply don't have the capacity to see through the media smokescreens, much less analyze anything of social or philosophical import.

    We also see this directly in the tech world. Here we are in 2017, with charge field theory a decade old already, and yet the entire tech industry is still focused on the electron. Maxwell and Tesla knew about charge almost two centuries ago, yet it's been completely ignored by the mainstream and outright forbidden by the Copenhagen Interpretation, Bohr and Heisenberg's manufactured "victory" over Einstein and Schrodinger. Our devices could be millions of times faster and smaller, but nobody even questions what electricity is, or how magnetism works. They still think charge is + and - signs, and that electrons orbit the nucleus, and a thousand other falsified errors.

    Ever wonder why CPUs and GPUs generate so much heat? It's because they're sloppy, slow, inefficient, and chasing the electron still in transistor technology. The should be chasing the real charge particle, the photon.
    BSim500 likes this.
  7. jobeard

    jobeard TS Ambassador Posts: 12,417   +1,408

    I doubt that many misunderstand the difference between physical science and the arts. It's a major mistake to assume that one is superior or has contributed more than the other. To do so is myopic at the very least. Divisive attitudes pitting one side of ANY argument against another is to deny the human genius that allows both to co-exist.

    There's a topic here on TS "Why so much hate?" raising the issue of tolerance of other OS choices and now this topic falls into a similar pit too.

    At one time it was a flat earth, geocentric universe and heretics were burnt. Shall we return to My way or the Hiway - - oh please! I'm listening to KUSC Classic Radio from Los Angeles as I write. Life is more than objects, particle theory and Objective C. Read some literature and expand horizons, perhaps
    • Tale of Two Cities
    • Frankenstein (it's not at all as depicted by Hollywood)
    • Merchant of Venice
    • John Locke's "Rights of Man"
    At least you will avoid walking into the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, SW while texting your buddies.

    Please ... save us from the lemmings.

    PS: Bachelor Of Science, 1968 CSULB,
    Short Wave Radio, Computer Science, Aviation buff, and first violinist.
    (apologies to all, but this one punched my buttons).
    hood6558 likes this.

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