Make Humanities Great Again

What Reid Hoffman, Jack Ma, Steve Jobs and Stewart Butterfield have in common? 

(yes, I’m fully aware that they are all men, but let’s save the discussion on ‘minorities inequality’ in the future articles, shall we? 🙂 )

All of them are founders or co-founders of a successful technology companies. All of them are billionaires (or maybe close to become one).

And none of them coming from technical background. At least not as extensive as i.e Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates or Larry Ellison.


STEM vs. Humanities Studies


(Note : I was in accounting/economics during high school so somehow grouped into middle level group a.k.a lower rung compared to STEM but a bit tad higher than students in literature or other humanities studies. No, I’m not the one giving that kind of definition. Only an observation)

Much being said about the low number of STEM students and the importance of STEM education in the future. I remember my time during high school that people in STEM were either being looked up with respect as intelligent people (or some rare cases, laughed at as geek). There were even a short-term government program for us (those who has finished their high school exam in humanities) to take STEM courses before entering universities so that if we want to, we can still join the engineering or medical sciences program after taking those program.

Yup, like religion conversion. Only not being forced or coerced into.

Back then we were told the stories of people like how Bill Gates started Microsoft. Or Albert Einsten’s theory of relativity. Or Stephen Hawking’s big bang & black hole theory (I still have the book though). And sadly, not many wants to talk about the genius undertaking of Edmond Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo or the thinking process & logic behind Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. At least not that I’m aware of.

Literature (and humanities studies as a whole) were much like a footnote in my education system. Maybe in yours too.

And yet, those humanities courses gave us people like Steve Jobs, Reid Hoffman & Jack Ma. People whom disrupts the world. People that makes science & technology interesting again. And people that employs other scientist & technologist to make their dreams a reality.

I can’t help to ask myself a question.

Did we just treat humanities studies like an orphaned, unloved child for all this while? 


Science Without Humanities


Who is this God science? Who is the God who offers his people power but no moral framework to tell you how to use that power? What kind of God gives a child fire but does not warn the child of its dangers? The language of science comes with no signposts about good and bad. Science textbooks tell us how to create a nuclear reaction, and yet they contain no chapter asking us if it is a good or a bad idea.

Camerlengo Carlo Ventresca – Angels & Demons

(To make it clear, I’m not against science. Not a bit. In fact, I worked with a technology companies for more than 10 years and still fascinates with technology)

I’m not going to go to the extreme like Camerlengo Ventresca and declare that technologist, engineers & scientists lack any kind of moral compass. Far from it. I’m sure there are nice, great people in science that thinks about how their technology can make this world a better place. But sadly, some of those only realise it a bit too late (ask Twitter). Even sadder, some may just ignore it & just pushing through (ask Facebook or Google). In this specific Facebook case, you have to wonder whether some of them just dropped their moral compass somewhere or they never had one to start with.

To some extent, I think I can understand their situation, especially that we currently live in a highly competitive world, which the mantra is ‘if I don’t do this, my competitor will’. That kind of mentality served us well for the last few decades. That kind of mentality gave us technological breakthrough like semiconductor, computers & Internet. Now, that mentality gives us lack of respect on our privacy, sowing distrust by interfering our election & divided us left and right. I doubt those engineers at Google & Facebook (just to name a few) were actually wants to sow the division among us, but I strongly believe that that’s the unintended consequences of the technological innovation but ignoring the ethical & humanities part of it. 

How ironic to think that the technology which claims connects us, actually divides us. And the technology that promise us a better future, creates uncertainty instead. The innovation that supposed to make us closer to each other, makes us feel more isolated & reduce our self-confidence by keep on comparing to others. What’s more ironic is that to combat our addiction with i.e smartphone, we need a feature (and maybe an apps) on the smartphone itself to actually tell us how long we spend our time with it. Maybe what we actually need is an alarm clock or countdown timer to helps us. But sadly, since a lot of us smartphone as their watch, we can’t escape the loop (me included, to some extent).

(Let’s not even started with deepfakes. Left unchecked, it’s just a matter of time before somebody use ‘em to falsely declare a world war!)

We keep on speeding on the technological advancement but somehow we forgot to pause & think whether humanities managed to keep up with the pace or somehow stuck in a traffic jam. 


‘Why’ vs. ‘What’ & ‘How’


Jim Garrison : I never realized Kennedy was so dangerous to the establishment. Is that why? 

Mr X : That’s the real question, isn’t it? Why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia…keeps them guessing, like a game. Prevents them from asking the most important question: why? 

Mr X – JFK

Why we need some humanities element in our technology? Because in the end, that element is the ‘why’. We can talk about the greatest, grandest, most technological breakthrough, but in the end, we need to ensure it’s for the benefit of humans. It’s the human who’s actually using the invention. Humanities should be served by technology rather than the other way round. It’s part of the human being that we need to social interaction with others hence, the plethora of social networking sites & media. It’s part of the human being that we need some answer to our question, hence the search engine. It’s part of the human being that we need to live in a better climate environment hence, the sustainable resources, clean energy & renewable materials. It’s about answering ‘why’ human behave & interact in such way that technology should become more as the enabler to provide the ‘what’ & ‘how’. 

It’s a well-known fact that people like Steve Jobs & Jack Ma are not technical founder. In fact, I don’t think they can’t write a single code! And yet Jack Ma one of the founder & currently the Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group (and worth just a few billions more than most of us). Same goes to Steve Jobs (no need any details of his history & achievement as I think we knew it quite extensively for the past at least 20 years). How could they do it? Surely they’d be lost if they have to technically explain how they can scale up their e-commerce site to fulfil the demand during Singles Day (in Alibaba Group case) or how their phone do the swiping & scrolling (in Apple case). 

They don’t have to. I think they understand what they can & can’t do. They just play by their strength. Technical nitty-gritty is not their world. However, their strength is more on translating their ideas & visions to a working prototype (technically & commercially) in a way that people would understand it in a simplest way. It’s about understanding of how human psychological & sociological behaviour. And about understanding how their users can be persuaded & convinced that their invention is the greatest thing ever in a simplest language possible. To do that, you need the knowledge of humanities to understand human being & how to convey the message.

And that’s why your high school valedictorian could be your next tech startup founder.



(Featured image of Faculty of History, University of Oxford. Image from Wikipedia)

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