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How not to fix Silicon Valley

The problem isn’t whether tech entrepreneurs read the humanities. It’s how they think.

Jonathan Bartlett for The Washington Post
By

The technologists building our future don’t lack for confidence. Silicon Valley brims with pride about what it can make and how it will transform everything. The tech sector hoovers up STEM graduates (science, technology, engineering and math), pays them better, tells them they’re smarter and claims that their contributions to human progress are so superior to those by students of the humanities that the softer disciplines may as well close up shop. All the while, this burgeoning class of entrepreneurs and engineers is constructing something closer to a dystopia than a paradise of invention that will help all of us self-actualize. From sexist algorithms to racist facial-recognition software to election-hijacking social media platforms, technological products that are supposed to fix social problems instead seem to be amplifying them.

Outlook • Perspective
Paul Musgrave. is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow @profmusgrave

People in the humanities — where enrollments are falling and universities consider closing entire departments — insist that their disciplines can fix those problems by helping STEM majors learn to be broader and more sensitive thinkers. STEM graduates may build better mousetraps, the idea goes, but humanities classes can help them solve the ethics of which mice to trap. Without that context, many argue, it’s no surprise that STEM keeps producing ethical horrors. Think of Jeff Goldblum’s character in “Jurassic Park” observing, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Open University professor John Naughton has argued that a deficit of humanities education means that the new elite, like Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, are “essentially only half-educated.” Even some tech practitioners, like programmer Tracy Chou of Quora, believe that a liberal arts education would have taught them how to better engage with the world.

This diagnosis presupposes an easy cure: If STEM students need to learn to think more broadly about the world, just prescribe them a few credits’ worth of philosophy and art history. That prescription neatly inverts an old pattern in which humanities students took easy versions of science courses to fulfill their distribution requirements — out with “physics for poets,” in with “poetry for physicists.”

The idea that having more humanistic engineers and software designers will save us from bigoted artificial intelligence and the like seems reasonable. It rests on the assumption that all those innovative disrupters haven’t steeped themselves in the right kind of culture. Maybe, the thinking goes, they just need to read a little Heidegger and Hemingway to right the ship.

Yet arguments that the humanities will save STEM from itself are untenably thin. Trusting academic humanities to save technologists both misses the real problem and sets the humanities up for failure. As a National Academies report put it, despite “abundant narrative and anecdotal evidence” about the benefits of integrating STEM and humanities education, “causal evidence on the impact of integration … is limited.” Scholars did find evidence of improved critical thinking and retention, but there was nothing about behaving more ethically.

And it’s the ethics we should worry about. After all, the Silicon Valley mind-set produces a seemingly endless array of illiberal technologies. Slate recently reported that local police departments and landlords have become enthusiastic adopters of automatic license-plate readers. The federal government largely outsources its surveillance monitoring to Silicon Valley firms. And researchers involved with creating facial-recognition software have been linked to Chinese firms providing security services to monitor Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Those stories fit well with a narrative that presumes Silicon Valley barons make these products because their incomplete education left them hostile to democratic values. Some havesuggested that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook might have been better off if he’d stayed in college to take a few more humanities courses. Or we could speculate that Twitter would be less ham-fisted about dealing with hate speech if Jack Dorsey had sat in on a good seminar about intersectionality. And critics on the left often highlight tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel and others associated with the “Dark Enlightenment,” a school of techno-utopianism mixed with neoreactionary tendencies, as examples of the backward thinking that a good humanities education could have fixed.

But reading the “Nicomachean Ethics” won’t actually make anyone more ethical. Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, has a Harvard BA in history and literature, and yet her company’s algorithms promote political radicalization. And one can’t seriously make the case that Thiel and others in the Dark Enlightenment camp, like computer scientist and thinker Mencius Moldbug, suffer from insufficient engagement with the humanities. Thiel has a philosophy degree from Stanford, while Moldbug spotlights his engagement with the Western canon. (And the Dark Enlightenment itself is said to have been cooked up by a philosophy professor.). If mere contact with the humanities made us better critical thinkers, these men would, presumably, have already solved our problems instead of exacerbating them.

Moreover, to suggest that the cure for what “ails” these people is simply more exposure to the humanities runs perilously close to claiming that such courses aren’t education so much as re-education — the stamping out of deviant beliefs. That notion is, or should be, alien to what defenders of the humanities want. The purpose of humanistic education in a free society isn’t to indoctrinate everyone into the same beliefs. Rather, it’s to give students the tools and background they need to observe, or participate in, debates that endure because they are not easily solved.

After all, history furnishes a number of examples of people deeply immersed in humanities education who committed their share of atrocities. From Mao Zedong’s love for “Dream of the Red Chamber” to Thomas Jefferson’s ownership (and worse) of slaves, exposure to the humanities does not inoculate students against committing atrocities.

The humanities does not simply ask “Should we do this?” It also supplies numerous answers about why we should or should not. The British Empire was manned by officials who had studied the classics — and, as it happens, so was the similarly rapacious Roman Empire that helped produce them. But where we might identify a critique of imperialism in those texts, they found vindication for colonial rule. Confederate Christians mastered the art of using biblical teachings to justify holding millions of people of African descent in bondage.

It’s fair to ask whether exposure to a humanities curriculum beyond the traditional pale, male and stale canon might have different effects. And maybe having more people read Audre Lorde would help. But it strains credibility to think Facebook, Twitter or YouTube would behave differently if only a few engineers had read something different in first-year seminar. The more likely outcome would have been an earlier onset of “rainbow washing” and other relatively superficial corporate diversity initiatives — and an even greater right-wing assault on university educations.

Asking the humanities to save STEM is a variant of “educationism” — the fallacy that getting our school curriculums right will fix our society. Education matters, but it’s not the only thing that shapes behavior. The leaders of Google, Facebook and Amazon (whose chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post) are not responding to lessons learned from their teachers when they set corporate strategy. They are responding to the incentives of the market. As we have seen recently with dangerous corporate decisions from Boeing’s 737 Max to Fisher-Price’s Rock ‘n Play baby sleeper, company leaders are apt to set aside ethics when the gains are big enough. The quest for growth will rapidly displace the finer points of a mandatory course or two. All the professors in the world are not as powerful to stop those decisions as better regulatory oversight.

Even when workers bring up such concerns, after all, they may be overruled — or create other problems: Google’s workers cited serious ethical objections to working on weaponized AI, leading the company to stop working on a Pentagon drone program. Thiel later reportedly cited the incident to charge that the company had been infiltrated by Chinese intelligence . Humanities education offers few responses that will hold up in a fear-driven climate — and even fewer defenses against a state willing to subtly or overtly incentivize firms or researchers to override their scruples.

Asking professors to shoulder the burden of fixing STEM’s problems isn’t a panacea that would absolve all other institutions of their responsibilities. Those other institutions — the world’s biggest corporations and the governments that could regulate them — can be much more powerful than the academy. And pushing the humanities as a “fix” also cheapens the value of other forms of political action.

The humanities should be saved — and required, and funded — but not because they will help the C-suite develop better products or stop executives from making disastrous ones. They should be saved and required because the alternative is a world without the humanities — one that would be cut off from its own past.

Acting as if that heritage is meaningful only if it can improve technical innovation is like valuing the Bayeux tapestry merely because it might keep you warm. If that is the best defense of the humanities we can offer, then they are already lost.

Credits: Paul Musgrave

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