Liberal Arts and Tech
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).
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.