Not out of the way,

but part of the way

Last updated 05 May 2024

Last updated 05 May 2024

Last updated 05 May 2024

Not out of the way,

but part of the way

The path of technology and the Humanities is a study in missed encounters, like two ships passing each other in the dead of the night. Occasionally, their gunwales brush against one another, sparking some of the world’s greatest ideas. But that magic is fleeting, and unseen currents tug the ships apart once more. 

When they separate, they leave a wake of problems behind them. New technologies abound, but are bereft of nuanced context and understanding. Tools that are meant to enhance human capabilities—like GPTs and LLMs—crumble under the real complexities of human experience. Food delivery services meant to simplify life instead tread harder on the downtrodden or add fuel to casteist and segregationist fires. Social platforms meant to connect people around the world instead perpetuate dangerous misinformation and social division. Far from being resonant expressions of shared humanity, many shiny technological masterworks today ring hollow.

Nothing symbolises this dystopia better than Apple’s latest iPad Pro ad, which shows an industrial press crushing humanity’s beloved tools for creation: record players, pianos, cameras, paint cans, even a lifelike mannequin shown valiantly, disturbingly, trying to hold up the press like Atlas holding up the sky. The message, even if unintentional, is clear: Vibrant humanity destroyed by cold, utilitarian industry, once again.

It wasn’t always this way. The very first universities in the world embodied a well-rounded approach to knowledge: the 'liberal arts', or subjects appropriate for a free man (the Latin “liber” means “free”). There were seven subjects, three of which focused on developing a familiarity with language and analysis, and the other four with the advanced mathematical-physical arts. A different, more focused combination of them made up the Humanities, the study of human society and culture. Not for the weak, the Humanities. They demanded intensive intellectual dialogue, which was necessary to nurture critical thinking, creativity, ethical reasoning and contextual understanding of lived experiences. [1]

If I were to extract the ethos of the Humanities, it would be this: the more broadly educated we are, the better we can place specific knowledge within the larger mosaic of human experience, and the easier it is to use lateral thinking perspectives to find the adjacent possible within one discipline. 

Then, around the 16th century, the epochal shift began. Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton sparked the Scientific Revolution, which established science as a powerful framework for understanding the world [2]. The Enlightenment of the 17th-18th centuries elevated scientific and empirical approaches even more. The final nail in the coffin was the Industrial Revolutions, which dramatically increased the economic and social capital of technical, manufacturing and engineering fields. The two World Wars and the Cold War era only exacerbated this, putting immense pressure on universities globally to churn out scientists, engineers and skilled labour over humanists [3]. Many countries, including India, were shaking off the shackles of their colonisers, so nation-building and specialised economic development took precedence over well-rounded education. The world no longer wanted individuals; they wanted cogs for their machines. 

Over decades, that way of thinking and being has been imprinted into our DNA. Our ancestors’ struggles for basic subsistence and security have evolved into an ugly tendency to favour economic and technological needs over overall human flourishing at a dangerous global scale.

This is a Faustian bargain [4]: in our industrious pursuit of power and plenty, we willingly trade away morality and humanity’s understanding of itself. We elevate instrumental rationality (how do I achieve an end?) over the arguably more important value rationality (which ends should I pursue?). So dazzled are we by shiny new tech that we rarely stop to think about why we’re building them in the first place.

AIs and LLMs like ChatGPT present the perfect example: they can mimic human intelligence with increasing prowess, but we skim right over the more urgent issues surrounding bias, privacy, and the long-term impacts of ceding the wrong kind of decision-making to machines. Their inception might have been as a tool to further humanity, but they’ve very quickly been turned into a crutch. Today, we use AI to write not because we want to improve our thinking or better ourselves, but simply to sound smart.     

Our education systems also continue to make these trade-offs. In a world where people go through multiple jobs in a lifetime and may even hold some in the future that don’t even exist today, you’d think we’d focus a lot more on universally applicable skills. A computer science graduate's coding skills may be obsolete within years (or earlier, considering how 3,200 startups and $27.2 billion in venture capital have gone up in a puff of smoke). Yet, the ability to think critically, communicate clearly and contextualise impact remains invaluable in any age. But we’re far from that balance. Educational institutions continue to mass-produce people ready to serve economic interests and penalise the ones who question that intention. Utilitarian progress is rarely balanced with the sobering wisdom of ethical restraint and social responsibility. 

Biotechnology, for example, teaches techniques to engineer our very genetic makeup. It’s a double-edged sword — how many courses also teach students how to draw the line between therapeutic intervention and human enhancement? We tinker with the building blocks of life itself, but who teaches us to grapple with the moral implications of playing god? 

Asking the right questions is the foundation of the Humanities. As a former student of the subjects myself, my studies taught us not to just absorb information, but to actively question assumptions, analyse ideas from multiple angles, and inquire incisively through dialogue and debate. We’d come out the other end with a deeper, more contextual understanding that transcended facts and figures.

I think context is key in the list of benefits the Humanities offers technology. Stewart Brand’s pace layers theory suggests that civilisation has different layers, each operating and evolving at different speeds. The faster layers like fashion and technology evolve rapidly; the slower layers like governance, culture and nature change at a glacial pace over a long, long time. By virtue of that, they shape the contexts in which we create and use new technologies and fashions.

Culture is a pretty obvious example: it guides our values and beliefs, is different in every geography, and colours the way we perceive the world. All of this ultimately determines what stays and what goes. All innovations, no matter how revolutionary, survive only if they win the approval of ageless human truths. Ironically, then, the endurance of Humanities actually raises its usefulness.

Ahistoricism also rampages freely in the tech world. There’s a tendency to see tech progress as a linear march, ever forward. That’s in jarring contrast with the truth: human affairs are cyclical and past events, social movements, and technological revolutions always shape the present context. In fact, I would argue that many faux pas repeatedly haranguing the tech world stem from not situating decisions within the broader context of the past and the future. This is a systemic fault; many tech companies have rapid product cycles and stakeholder pressure. Long-term thinking is talked about but it’s really short-term action that “moves the needle”. That incentivises solutions that address immediate or perceived needs, capitalise on current trends or mimic existing solutions without taking risks, like slapping a fresh coat of paint on a house whose roof is caved in.

Crypto’s failure to achieve consumer adoption, for example, mirrors past financial manias like the dotcom bubble — economic history can tell anyone that. The myopia extends well into the future, which is almost always imagined through the lens of dazzling technology, and doesn’t explore the broader societal, cultural, and environmental implications over decades. 

So where do we go from here?

Building enduring companies and careers requires jumping through more hoops than just technical excellence. It requires a deep understanding of human need, beyond what we can already articulate ourselves, and that only comes from engaging hands on with the world we’re actually trying to build for. This isn’t anything new: plenty of products with a cult following today were originally built to stoke a fire we didn’t know existed. 

That’s what the Humanities offer. We have an abundance of intelligence and specific utility; we now need adaptive flexibility, wisdom, to temper it. 

To do that, I think Humanities needs to be re-perceived not as the third vertical of education [5], but as a thread that runs horizontally through every other discipline. Like Tao, it needs to be not “out of the way” but “part of the way”. Aspirationally, this would mean baking Humanities electives and modules into technical and specialised training courses, much like the original structure of the Liberal Arts. The breadth serves to aid and continuously contextualise specialised pursuits.

But this re-perception is where we meet our first, most formidable challenger: the stereotypes that already plague the Humanities. In India, for example, the Humanities are seen as a fall-back for people who couldn’t crack STEM or commerce. They are brushed off as intellectual luxuries not necessary for the “real” purpose of life: becoming rich and successful. The proclivity of secondary and high schools towards making non-STEM subjects more about chanting dates and less about developing a world-view doesn’t help the cause one bit. The frustrating truth is that not many people take the Humanities seriously — and this is why our eyes are closed to signs of its dire necessity around us. 

This is a two-way street. Academia’s reputation of being insular and out of touch isn’t unfounded, and that extends to the Humanities as well. Impact there, while substantial, tends to be confined to teaching students and publishing papers (worthy enough causes, I should add, but not a one-size-fits-all result). Tech offers a way out of the ivory tower, a ticket to applying knowledge in more dynamic, cross-functional and widespread contexts with almost immediate results. I’d also argue that being able to move across functions and industries allows for more dynamic personal and professional growth over time. In my opinion as a Humanities student, this is the ideal scenario: applying decades of historical and empirical research in very real, very human contexts.

Hiring more Humanities graduates into tech roles can serve as a good front door into this ideal world. While HR, marketing and communications typically bias towards hiring Humanities graduates, it’s important to break that and also consider them for areas of product impact like product management, content design, user research and experience design. We could actively build interdisciplinary teams that mix humanities and STEM disciplines and involve experts from fields like anthropology, sociology, and ethics much earlier in product/solution design cycles. Baking human-centeredness in the organisation from the get-go makes downstream processes— like marketing and PR—much more proactive than reactive.

The current status quo in technology doesn’t lend itself well to making happy, content and morally well-rounded people of us. I think the time has come to reassert the original purpose of Humanities, to reinstate it as the foil to the tech world. If technology and the Humanities can be more than ships passing in the night—if we imbue the core of innovation with human value—we can shape resonant tools that are as warmly human as they are wonderfully capable.


[1] Today’s liberal arts courses almost mirror this except for one difference: choosing a major in the second year so that the breadth aids specialised pursuits. back to reading

[2] Galileo and Newton were also writers, philosophers and musicians —  imaginative and versatile thinkers who crossed the boundaries between humanistic and scientific knowledge. Renaissance men, if you will. back to reading

[3] Graduates of the Humanities are called humanists, which should not be confused with the philosophical position of "humanism", which emphasises individual agency and is often tied with secular thought. back to reading

[4] Faust, according to Christian legend, traded his soul (of supreme moral importance) to the devil in exchange for knowledge (worldly or material benefit). Originally, the trade serves him well because he lives a life of power and pleasure. In the name of industrious will, he ignores human needs. But in time, he sees how all the allure of riches was futile, and the Devil claims his soul. back to reading

[5] STEM and Commerce are the other two verticals. back to reading

© 2024 Sindhu Shivaprasad.