Humanities in a Big Data World

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Humanities in a Big Data World

A lot has been said about the future of workforce. We have seen many "prophets" claiming the end of jobs how we know them today. Oxford University has claimed that tech could steal around 47% of the existing jobs nowadays. The OECD isn't so pessimistic and calculates that 10% of the world population will remain unemployed because of technological development. And it could become true someday. Maybe.

In the last few years we have seen the boost of tech roles, degrees, and specialties as an answer to concerns about changing workplace trends. It seems one of the safest ways of ensuring your future is being a data scientist, developer or a computer engineer.

And those highly specialized roles are the profiles we need to make our world a better place. Indeed, some tech lovers working on innovation and new developments have found something was missing in this whole new era of tech-jobs. And what they are turning to in order to fill in that gap might surprise you: a liberal education.

Some people are coming to realize we shouldn't forget the importance of humanities, social sciences, art among others disciplines in the education of technical profiles. And why is that?

Figure 1: Many experts on technological fields are looking into humanities to find answers on which path technological development should take.

First of all, as science and tech philosopher David Casacuberta points out a liberal education is key "because many of technological developments where first in philosophers minds and then became true in the hands of engineers." In an article at El País, Casacuberta and other experts on the field bring up many areas in which a humanistic approach has been and will be indispensable. These include examples such as the Turing test and linguistic development of Artificial Intelligence. In the article, they claim that the philosophic thinking is essential when it comes to the designing of our future world.

One might think that these are two worlds, humanism and technological development, are irreconcilable because of the gap that separates them. Nevertheless, many experts point out the need to embrace both worlds in the creation of the Third Culture. This term has been proposed by John Brockman, businessman and editor of Edge Magazine, and attempts to include and unify both cultures. This also means that humanists have to make an effort as well and become interested in what science and tech has to offer to our world. The concept here is about merging the best of both areas.


Figure 2: John Brockman created the term "Third Culture" aiming to close the gap between numerical and technological disciplines with social sciences.

Brockman is not the only one advocating this fusion. Susan Etlinger has been working in Big Data for a while now as an industry data analyst for Altimeter Group. In her Ted Talk, Susan explains how we’ve developed an immense power to process tons of exabytes very quickly. For that reason, we are able to make decisions that damage our world faster, more efficiently, and with far more impact. History proves that we humans tend to go the wrong way when we don't take into account critical or long-term thinking. And that is exactly what Susan embraces: a culture of technical profiles with an attention to fields such as humanities, ethics, and philosophy. It doesn't matter if your hypothesis is made out of words or numbers, it needs to be right and free of assumptions. Therefore, to find mistakes in our reasoning we must question our work. In her words, "we must show the math" behind our problem solving and inquire ourselves if we are asking the right questions. And you can gain that ability learning from the humanities.

Figure 3: Susan Etlinger has given a world famous Ted Talk on the importance of taking into account critical thinking when developing technology.

William Cronon, awarded with a Pulizter prize in history, is a good thinker to investigate if you would like to learn more on this topic. In his article "Only Connect," he goes through the characteristics of what he thinks a liberal mind should be. Cronon defines the word "liberal education" to be an "educational tradition that nurtures human freedom in the service of human community, which is to say that in the end it celebrates love." It is important to keep this definition in mind, because our goal to be leaders of the world’s technological development will never make a positive impact if we do not take into account this definition of a liberal mind.

We don’t want people passionate for tech feel neglected. On the contrary, they have the tools to make our world a better place with technology development. And adding some love for humanities makes the perfect mix to fulfill this important mission.

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