Our heritage is the key to our humanity
“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.” — B.F. Skinner, 1969
I recently saw news of a young man who was arrested for sitting in the rear seat of his Tesla, as it operated in its erroneously-named “Auto Pilot” mode.
And it immediately brought to mind the B.F. Skinner quote above.
There’s something about technology that makes us lose our damn minds.
Whether we’re behind the wheel of a self (not really)-driving car, commanding a drone attack from thousands of miles away from a target, or acting as a keyboard warrior in the unending Flame Wars that occupy social media — each one of these has dehumanized an experience and allows us to detach our minds from the reality of what we’re doing.
“We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human nature.” — John Naisbitt
We’re tempted to take a digital detox, but sometimes, it’s just not an option. Leaders are expected to make sense of it all—to parse through all of the facts flying at them, and to do so, they need to put the pieces together using perception and imagination to create insights and informed decisions.
Perception, imagination, and insights come from years of experience on the job, but they also come from being widely read and learning how to think critically. These are attributes that are a consequence of an education in the humanities.
In the age of the rise of STEM education, philosophizing about the humanities might seem counterintuitive.
In my conversation with Tom Peters, he made it quite clear that over his four decades of consulting, advising, speaking, and writing about leadership, the skills gained from the humanities—and humanity itself—were directly tied to better-performing individuals and companies.
At first blush, Plato doesn’t seem to be of much use in computer programming.
Hannibal may have crossed the Alps on elephants, but he can’t navigate an algorithm for an autonomous vehicle.
And Abraham Lincoln thought that the world would little note nor long remember what he said, but can he help write ad copy?
If we want to bridge the theoretical and the practical, look no further than Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “The American Scholar,” a speech he gave to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa in 1837, in which he discerned the difference between the “Man Thinking” and the bookworm:
“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books…Hence the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution.”
He of course meant not that these are two separate states of being (humans are almost never entirely one thing or another—we’re complex that way), but that if we apply what we’ve come to learn on the printed page to our own experiences, we can create new and better opportunities for ourselves.
In fact, Emerson plainly stated the interplay between our work lives and our education:
“When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read become luminous with manifold allusion.”
That is, we find inspiration everywhere.
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.” ― Rev. D.F. Potter, 1927
A Spacious Country of the Mind
I’ve made no secret that one of my regular resources is Lapham’s Quarterly, a publication that in each issue captures a wealth of history and knowledge, which Will and Ariel Durant called
“a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing.”
But what can such figures of the past teach us about digital communications, leadership in the age of Covid-19, or the security concerns of an enterprise SaaS purchase?
What good are history, literature, and philosophy when engineers are trying to complete their code?
Just over a decade ago, Lewis Lapham noted that he regularly came across academic journals and alumni magazines with “articles that might as well be entitled ‘What In God’s Name Are the Humanities, and Why Are They of Any Use to Us Here in the Bright Blue Technological Wonder of the Twenty-First Century?’” 1
Technology has advanced well beyond its capabilities in Mr. Lapham’s observation in 2008. But the need for humanities has not. Since then, we’ve seen the fine-tuning of artificial intelligence, the creation of the gig economy, and the rise of Facebook’s power.
As a result, we’ve seen unconscious built-in biases in A.I., a feudal class system made up of taxi-driving serfs, and a global communications platform that puts the very idea of democracy at risk led by a CEO who has all the power of an autocrat.
When you develop a business primarily through the lens of engineering, algorithms, and technology, and fail to properly account for human behavior as discernible by historic events and trends, these are the inevitable results.
“I think technology really increased human ability. But technology cannot produce compassion.” — Dalai Lama
Enjoy those computer science degrees while you have them, Mark Cuban says. Because with the rise of A.I., the ability to program will be quickly assumed by machines.
Longer term, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills will be more valued because these are things that are bound by emotions and empathy. In 10 years, a philosophy degree will be worth more than a computer science degree.
The humanities give us an opportunity to apply perspective and ethics to the field of technology. To not only game out the potential scenarios, but to ask and answer the hows and whys before those scenarios even exist.
Voltaire once asked, “Is there any one so wise as to learn by the experience of others?” While no one has lived exactly as any one of us will, we can turn to the stories from those statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers from history and go from bookworms to Humans Thinking.
Our heritage is the key to our humanity.