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The Humanities Matter More in an AI World
The Fuzzy and the Techie, and our human abilities
Many today believe that Silicon Valley is a walled garden filled only with drop outs and coders, and that tech is a monolith comprised only of computer scientists. We lionize the “techie” while we denigrate anything perceived to be less rigorous. Fellow VCs have quipped that those with soft skills will work in shoe stores and that all liberal arts degrees are useless. But journalists and VCs overlook a more composite, complex reality of tech.
Many people in Silicon Valley are “fuzzies” rather than “techies,” and both make the place thrive. These terms used to describe majors in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and those in the technical or hard sciences at Stanford , have bubbled well beyond the confines of campus.
I grew up in Palo Alto, and have seen the Valley through many lenses, from elementary to middle to Palo Alto High School to Stanford to Google to Facebook to Sand Hill. I remember when Marc Andreessen hosted Al Gore because I could barely bike home from middle school, and that Steve Jobs washed his own dishes. I’d often see him when I left my soccer teammate’s house on Sundays after studying for AP Calculus. I remember designing an ad for a startup called Google in 1999 for which they paid $800 for the glossy back page cover of our high school magazine. I took Java, and spent a summer writing HTML at a startup in Los Altos, but all along I was a “fuzzy” living in an increasingly techie world, an analog kid in a digital age.
The counterintuitive truth, that is equally empowering, is that Silicon Valley is as fuzzy as it is techie, and therein perhaps inheres its greatest advantage. There is a flourishing when these two tribes come together. Software is no doubt eating the world, but put another way, technology is coming to transform every industries. What this means is that the context is as important as the code to which it is applied. When everyone comes out of school seeking the riches of entrepreneurship but without a depth of curiosity and consideration for the most profound problems the world faces, tech lacks application. In this rush we miss the very value that tech ostensibly promises: to make life better.
“This terrific book clearly articulates the importance of the liberal arts in our techno-centric world, a view I have long supported. In the end, technology is about making the lives of humans better, and, as the author argues, it is the humanities and social sciences that teach us about the human condition and how it might be improved. A delightful read!” — John Hennessy, President Emeritus and Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, Stanford University
Some might concede that indeed there are fuzzies, but they’re the consultants, the khaki-clad managers hired into replace the early risk-takers, the MBA-set. But this glosses over the reality that fuzzies aren’t just business leaders in sales and marketing; in fact they’re driving innovation by founding companies, and running product development.
Sure there are business leaders. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg studied economics while YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki studied history and literature. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina studied medieval history while Palantir CEO Alex Karp has a PhD in neoclassical social theory. But they’re also visionaries behind product. PayPal’s Peter Thiel, Slack’s Stewart Butterfield, and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman pursued degrees in philosophy. Both Pinterest’s Ben Silbermann and Thumbtack’s Jonathan Swanson studied political science, while Salesforce’s Parker Harris studied English.
GitHub, an open-source developer community, has thousands of repositories of code ready to “fork” or copy. Frameworks on top of coding languages automate processes. For example, coders once had to develop websites to fit every screen and browser type. Today “Bootstrap” for CSS is a framework developers literally copy and paste into source code, making any site automatically and dynamically resize for any browser.
We’re moving toward a world where code syntax is getting closer to English, and the highest order programming language will some day be natural language. What this means is that we need smart questioners, people who can structure thought. Voltaire once said to judge a man by his questions, not by his answers, and this is true today.
Tomorrow if you want an answer you’ll ask a machine, but if you want a question you’ll need to enlist a smart human. This is why we need fuzzies at the heart of our tech.
Sitting in the venture capital perch on Sand Hill Road, I began to recognize these incredible contributors across Silicon Valley. I began to see how, as Stewart Butterfield claims, great product development is about following an argument all the way down. I began to see how product alignment can be as elusive as philosophical truth. In social media I saw how Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist at the center of Snapchat is asking questions about what he calls “digital dualism,” or the fallacy that something online is fake while something offline is authentic. In a world of manufactured Instagram artifice, he helped them reimagine instant digital authenticity at Snap. In big data I saw Jessica Carbino at the forefront of sociology, analyzing the billions of profile views and swipes at the mobile dating app Tinder. Rather than academia she chose to apply her research in tech. In autonomous vehicles I saw Melissa Cefkin is an anthropologist guiding the development of algorithms that can interact with humans in the complex dance of non-verbal communication. In AI I saw Fei-Fei Li at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab openly calling for diversity of thought in AI creation.
Tech is only becoming a deeper part of our existence, and as Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group and Author of Superpower so kindly stated in his endorsement for my book, “You can’t build a wall to keep the robots out. That doesn’t mean we’re doomed.” We require both the human and the technical, both philosophers and coders.
Charles Percy Snow lamented the chasm between the sciences and humanities in 1959, calling for an end of the “Two Cultures.” I thought it necessary to write my book The Fuzzy and the Techie, to consider the faux opposition that persists today. We require the Liberal Arts in equal measure to STEM. We must invest in deep thinking humans alongside Deep Learning AI, in both philosophers as well as coders. Only when we internalize this will we reap technology’s promise to fundamentally improve our lives.
“Scott Hartley artfully explains why it is time for us to get over the false division between the human and the technical. If received and acted upon with the seriousness it deserves we can anticipate real benefits for business and society.” — Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO