Current Affairs digital humanities Higher Education

the philosophical technologist; the technological philosopher

This article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, by Damon Horowitz, Google's in-house philosopher, has been making the rounds. I find Horowitz makes his key point here:

The technology issues facing us today—issues of identity, communication, privacy, regulation—require a humanistic perspective if we are to deal with them adequately. If you actually care about one of those topics—if you want to do something more serious about it than swap idle opinions over dinner—you can. And, I would venture, you must. Who else is going to take responsibility for getting it right?

I see a humanities degree as nothing less than a rite of passage to intellectual adulthood. A way of evolving from a sophomoric wonderer and critic into a rounded, open, and engaged intellectual citizen. When you are no longer engaged only in optimizing your products—and you let go of the technotopian view—your world becomes larger, richer, more mysterious, more inviting. More human.

Horowitz tracks his own journey from being a successful technologist to someone who became dissatisfied with his ability to address the challenges he had set for himself. His humanities graduate education, he argues, became invaluable in exploring these deeper philosophical questions in a way his previous education could not. Perhaps Horowitz presents an overly romantic vision of the humanities. He acknowledges this to some degree, though I believe he is sincere in his accounting of the value his education has been to him. And no doubt, his personal, idiosyncratic journey from technology to philosophy may not be a blueprint for others to follow. I don't think he's asking anyone to take his life as a model.

What is most interesting (and sadly telling) are the comments that follow the article in which various humanists take all manner of offense to Horowitz's suggestion that the humanities was actually useful for him as a technologist and might be valuable to other technologists as well. I'll just offer the first response as indicative of what generally follows in the 71 comments (at this moment) that follow:

While I appreciate a well-written defense of the value of the humanities, I resent that it takes someone who has a degree in a "more valuable" discipline to help/allow us to be taken seriously. Please don't take this personally, but it's frustrating that people in tech or business are taken more seriously when they talk about the value of the humanities than those of us who are "just" humanists.

Yes, heaven forbid that someone not in the humanities might find our work valuable. Certainly no humanists would ever be so rude as to find value in the sciences or in business or among technologists. The comments range from refuting Horowitz's suggestion that the humanities could be of any use to claiming injury from the suggestion that someone with a humanities phd might do something other than become an academic. Keep in mind that most of these comments appear to come from academics in the humanities. 

Admitedly, it is an unfortunately surprising notion to most humanists that the humanities might serve as an intellectual means to address the challenges, problems, and opportunities that humans encounter in their lived experience. If, as the last century has suggested, humanists wish to be viewed like the sciences, conducting "pure research," then maybe we need "applied humanities." While I would be happy to nominate rhetoric as applied humanities, I'm not sure if or how rhetoric would make any use of "pure" humanities research, because in the humanities not only is research done without regard to how or if it might be applied, it is often done with a resolute insistence that it has and can have no application or value. 


In any case, the sad little comment stream on this article tells you all you need to know about what is wrong with the humanities. In my view, of all the arenas of academic thought, the humanities most of all needs to be in/of the world. Maybe using the humanities to address technological problems isn't for everyone. Obviously not everyone is going to be an in-house philosopher at Google. But why should we be angry or even skeptical about the notion that the humanities might be of value to such people?

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