Empathy doesn’t seem to be a very popular tool among Silicon Valley’s leading digital dreamers. To its great credit, the tech industry promises to improve the world. Yet it’s hard not to notice its passion for issues that look like problems only to people who look like Silicon Valley itself: overwhelmingly white, male, young, educated, and affluent.
Inequality soars, and the world unravels, but from Silicon Valley we’re presented with apps and services designed to save us from those most heinous of tasks: parking, doing laundry, and (gasp) buying groceries. If solipsism is the conceptual motor of the industry, it should be no surprise that we read with some regularity about tone-deaf Google Glass wearers or start-up whiz kids, unable to imagine why their actions could possibly alarm others.
To be fair, coding workshops and computer-science classes don’t ask budding developers to imagine the lives of others and see the world for the complex, uncertain place it really is. That’s what the humanities are for.
When I teach students about the First World War or Berlin’s Golden Twenties, I’m challenging them to suspend their assumptions and step outside themselves to make sense of a foreign world. Novels make similar demands. Art historians help us see that the world can be expressed and perceived in a million different ways. In other words, the humanities encourage the use of empathy as a way of thinking and solving problems.
The liberal arts get short shrift in Silicon Valley—why fill out your college degree when you could be dropping out and diving into programming languages on a Thiel Fellowship? The humanities don’t necessarily trump coding literacy. But the insights of both will be essential if this age of mobile technology is going to live up to its promise and create a world we all want to live in.
Technology without a human face is dangerous and when Silicon Valley is so skewed by the demographics of its innovators there is a real need for some balance. For myself a background in the humanities, science and technology has been very enlightening and beneficial.
Have a great day and a profitable week and read a good book :)