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Is technology taking a toll on our ability to understand of other people and society itself? Are the liberal arts losing their meaning in the world of big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning? Does it make sense to study philosophy, anthropology or psychology in this age of technology-driven lifestyles? Scott Hartley, author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World thinks it does. “The study of social sciences, psychology and philosophy comes into play when we try to address human problems through technology,” he says. “We talk about magic words like big data and AI, but the inputs that created these things are human. And human beings are subject to bias, fallibility and error. So it is important to broaden the scope of participation in technology and have people from all walks of life participating in it.”
At Stanford University, California, ‘fuzzy’ refers to a student of the humanities and social sciences, while ‘techies’ are students of engineering or the sciences. Brought up in tech mecca Palo Alto, California, Hartley, however, is not a techie. “That is also an impetus to write this book,” he says. “It is sort of autobiographical. I am a fuzzy. I studied political theory. Then I worked with Google and went to India to set up a team in Google India, before moving to Facebook. Later I became an investor in start-ups. I realised so many investors and product managers are from diverse backgrounds. I was not really alone, a political scientist working in the tech world. Technology is something we all need to engage with as it is a part of our world. The book is no way anti-technology.”
According to Hartley, technology and the liberals arts are married to each other and neither can be studied in isolation from the other. “As a fuzzy growing up in a techie world, this false dichotomy has been something I observed in Palo Alto, California, where Steve Jobs donated the Apple computers we used in high school,” Hartley writes in his book. “This was something I observed furthermore as a Stanford student; as an employee of Google, where I spent over a year launching two teams in Hyderabad and Gurugram, India, as an employee of Facebook, and then as a venture capitalist at a $2-billion fund on Sand Hill Road, California. Peering behind the veil of our greatest technology, it is often our greatest humanity that makes it whole.”
Tech is not the only discipline in Silicon Valley: Talking about Silicon Valley, Hartley said the presence of technology is quite uniform there. People feel studying technology makes them future-ready by discounting on other skills that are equally important. “I looked around Silicon Valley and there are number of CEOs and founders who come from humanities and liberal arts backgrounds. They have figured out how to apply technology meaningfully,” he says, adding that the founders of LinkedIn, YouTube and Pinterest are all people with a background in the social sciences. In the big technology companies, 50-60 per cent of the employees are non-engineers, “yet we think of them as monolithic structures of owning technical people,” he says.
“Take a look at some of the most successful global brands in technology, and many of these exemplars of ‘tech’ are grounded in educations that taught methods of interrogation and rigorous thought, with many technology companies formed on the philosophies learned through liberal arts educations,” he writes in his book. “The United States has no exclusive on this; across the Pacific, the richest man in Asia is Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce giant, Alibaba. He was an English major.”
Technology is incomplete without human touch: When people talk about future work, automation, machine learning and AI, what they often overlook is the human part. Citing C.P. Snow, who said the study of science and humanities are interlocked, Hartley says, “No one can study only technology without understanding human nature, psychology and how societies work…. In actuality, they (tech companies) are more diverse. But, at the same time, they are not perfect. The biggest challenges they face at present are not technological. The challenges are around privacy, security of data, ethics, editorial and decisions around what should be free speech. These are big public policy/ philosophy questions. They are not technology questions. So I think the gaps in technology companies, even though they are really diverse, the biggest challenge is they do not have enough of these perspectives. They are too much into tech.”
Don’t people think tech is more ‘cool’ than the liberal arts? “We somehow have this perspective that engineering is the hard stuff and humanities is a softer skill,” says Hartley. “The irony is the questions we are asking in humanities have been the same over the last 2,000 years. What is a good life? Or what does it mean to be ethical? These are perennial questions that will have applications forever. So I think it is wrong to think these things are less relevant today than they were in the past.”
Liberal arts are key to freedom of the mind: According to Hartley, opportunity awaits those who have an understanding of the liberal arts as well as technology. “The marriage of liberal arts and technology is important, not one or the other,” he says. “We treat education as a plane ticket. Getting past this notion is important. Rather education should be more like a passport, which can have many stamps from many different places and methodology. Education should be looked at as an ongoing, lifelong activity where you are looking to acquire stamps from many different disciplines and domains.”
Doesn’t studying the liberal arts make it tough to land a job? “The degree title has to match job title. And it is important to engage with technology,” Hartley says. In his book, he writes: “The alarm about the future of work and the prospects of liberal arts graduates is clearly founded in genuine concern, but it is also sorely misguided for a number of reasons.… Though increasingly ‘smart’ and nimble machines will perhaps be taking the place of some workers, the extent of likely job displacement has been greatly exaggerated.”
Hartley as Angel Investor: “I had made the mistake of investing in sheer technology companies that have highly competitive engineers, but they often find it difficult to have a product-market fit,” says Hartley, who has invested in a dozen companies, and thinks problem-centric approaches work better than building a product first and then trying to slot it in the market. “I think deep understanding of a particular problem in the world partnered with technology works better,” he says. “The combination of both brings in magic.”
The name of his fund is Two Culture Capital, which aims to invest globally in companies innovating at the intersection of technology and humanity. Hartley is currently engaged with two Indian companies—Lybrate.com and Vahan.com—where he plans to invest very soon.