Note to Big Tech: Read Your History

America’s tech giants are accused of many sins, including invading our privacy and even degrading our democracy. But one other commonality among these masters of the code universe is rarely discussed: Virtually no tech CEOs have a background in the humanities, such as literature and history.

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a citizen? And what are our responsibilities to one another? If their behavior is any guide, tech titans have never thought deeply about any of these questions.

Instead, major social platforms like Facebook simply build fines for privacy violations into their budgeting. Ridesharing services like Uber underpay their hardworking drivers and offer no benefits. And hate speech runs rampant on all social networks.

If our tech overlords had studied the humanities — rather than just business or computer science — they might have been less likely to treat our data as a commodity to be used for their own purposes. Facebook might not have blithely violated its 2011 privacy consent decree, or stood back when hate speech consumed its platform.

I’m not alone in believing that arts and humanities training could create much better technologists. In a 2018 study, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine called for an integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with these less numerical disciplines.

In designing technology, empathy and other human-scale values are now being championed as well. After all, how can you sell good “user experience” if you know little about the users? And when the robots come for our jobs, human creative intelligence may be one of the only things still needed in the labor market.

One might ask: What are the chances of building a tech unicorn if you studied Chaucer or Weber rather than computer science?

But my argument isn’t that only English majors should run tech incubators, but that our digital masters should find a place in their lives and minds for Plato and Margaret Mead. As a study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano shows, literature makes us better at comprehending other people’s feelings — a useful skill in both a leader and an employee.

If Uber and other gig economy “winners” had studied Dickens or labor history, would they have fought so nastily to maintain that their drivers are “side hustling,” concierge-like contractors with few employment rights?

If executives at Lyft had read Jane Addams’ 20 Years At Hull House, or even a textbook on the basics of maternal biology, would they have celebrated the fact that a driver had to pick up riders after she went into labor, and then Lyft herself to the hospital to give birth?

And if those who insist on creepily long hours from their employees had at least read Marx, they might not snicker so affectionately at the T-shirt slogan “9 to 5 is for the weak.”

Today’s tech jobs — with “nap pods” and campus environments that make it so their workers almost never leave work — evoke Marx’s account of how long work days rob people of their “normal, moral, and physical conditions of development.”

This is part of a broader problem, of course. In 1971, there were fewer than two business majors for every English major in American colleges. As of 2016, it’s more than 8 to 1 and growing.

As T.S. Eliot wrote: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Studying the humanities means engaging with what the Romantics called “the sympathetic imagination” — an idea that tech overlords would hopefully direct not just at themselves but also toward other people.

More articles by:
September 19, 2019
Richard Falk
Burning Amazonia, Denying Climate Change, Devastating Syria, Starving Yemen, and Ignoring Kashmir
Charles Pierson
With Enemies Like These, Trump Doesn’t Need Friends
Lawrence Davidson
The Sorry State of the Nobel Peace Prize
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Scourge in the White House
Urvashi Sarkar
“Not a Blade of Grass Grew:” Living on the Edge of the Climate Crisis in the Sandarbans of West Bengal.
Thomas Knapp
Trump and Netanyahu: “Mutual Defense” or Just Mutual Political Back-Scratching?
Dean Baker
Is There Any Lesser Authority Than Alan Greenspan?
Gary Leupp
Warren’s Ethnic Issue Should Not Go Away
George Ochenski
Memo to Trump: Water Runs Downhill
Jeff Cohen
What George Carlin Taught Us about Media Propaganda by Omission
Stephen Martin
The Perspicacity of Mcluhan and Panopticonic Plans of the MIC
September 18, 2019
Kenneth Surin
An Excellent Study Of The Manufactured Labour “Antisemitism Crisis”
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Crown Prince Plans to Make Us Forget About the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi Before the US Election
W. T. Whitney
Political Struggle and Fixing Cuba’s Economy
Ron Jacobs
Support the Climate Strike, Not a Military Strike
John Kendall Hawkins
Slouching Toward “Bethlehem”
Ted Rall
Once Again in Afghanistan, the U.S. Proves It Can’t Be Trusted
William Astore
The Ultra-Costly, Underwhelming F-35 Fighter
Dave Lindorff
Why on Earth Would the US Go to War with Iran over an Attack on Saudi Oil Refineries?
Binoy Kampmark
Doctored Admissions: the University Admissions Scandal as a Global Problem
Jeremy Corbyn
Creating a Society of Hope and Inclusion: Speech to the TUC
Zhivko Illeieff
Why You Should Care About #ShutDownDC and the Global Climate Strike  
Catherine Tumber
Land Without Bread: the Green New Deal Forsakes America’s Countryside
Liam Kennedy
Boris Johnson: Elitist Defender of Britain’s Big Banks
September 17, 2019
Mario Barrera
The Southern Strategy and Donald Trump
Robert Jensen
The Danger of Inspiration in a Time of Ecological Crisis
Dean Baker
Health Care: Premiums and Taxes
Dave Lindorff
Recalling the Hundreds of Thousands of Civilian Victims of America’s Endless ‘War on Terror’
Binoy Kampmark
Oiling for War: The Houthi Attack on Abqaiq
Susie Day
You Say You Want a Revolution: a Prison Letter to Yoko Ono
Rich Gibson
Seize Solidarity House
Laura Flanders
From Voice of America to NPR: New CEO Lansing’s Glass House
Don Fitz
What is Energy Denial?
Dan Bacher
Governor Newsom Says He Will Veto Bill Blocking Trump Rollback of Endangered Fish Species Protections
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: Time to Stop Pretending and Start Over
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Inside the Syrian Peace Talks
Elliot Sperber
Mickey Mouse Networks
September 16, 2019
Sam Husseini
Biden Taking Iraq Lies to the Max
Paul Street
Joe Biden’s Answer to Slavery’s Legacy: Phonographs for the Poor
Paul Atwood
Why Mattis is No Hero
Jonathan Cook
Brexit Reveals Jeremy Corbyn to be the True Moderate
Jeff Mackler
Trump, Trade and China
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Democrats and the Climate Crisis
Michael Doliner
Hot Stuff on the Afghan Peace Deal Snafu