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:
July 16, 2019
Conn Hallinan
The World Needs a Water Treaty
Kenneth Surin
Britain Grovels: the Betrayal of the British Ambassador
Christopher Ketcham
This Land Was Your Land
Gary Leupp
What Right Has Britain to Seize an Iranian Tanker Off Spain?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Democratic Virtues in Electing a President
Thomas Knapp
Free Speech Just isn’t That Complicated
Binoy Kampmark
The Resigning Ambassador
Howard Lisnoff
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Nicky Reid
Nukes For Peace?
Matt Johnson
The United States of Overreaction
Cesar Chelala
Children’s Trafficking and Exploitation is a Persistent, Dreary Phenomenon
Martin Billheimer
Sylvan Shock Theater
July 15, 2019
David Altheide
The Fear Party
Roger Harris
UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Bachelet’s Gift to the US: Justifying Regime Change in Venezuela
John Feffer
Pyongyang on the Potomac
Vincent Kelley
Jeffrey Epstein and the Collapse of Europe
Robert Fisk
Trump’s Hissy-Fit Over Darroch Will Blow a Chill Wind Across Britain’s Embassies in the Middle East
Binoy Kampmark
Juggling with the Authoritarians: Donald Trump’s Diplomatic Fake Book
Dean Baker
The June Jobs Report and the State of the Economy
Michael Hudson – Bonnie Faulkner
De-Dollarizing the American Financial Empire
Kathy Kelly
Remnants of War
B. Nimri Aziz
The Power of Our Human Voice: From Marconi to Woods Hole
Elliot Sperber
Christianity Demands a Corpse 
Weekend Edition
July 12, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Skull of Death: Mass Media, Inauthentic Opposition, and Eco-Existential Reality in a Pre-Fascist Age of Appeasement
T.J. Coles
“Strategic Extremism”: How Republicans and Establishment Democrats Use Identity Politics to Divide and Rule
Rob Urie
Toward an Eco-Socialist Revolution
Gregory Elich
How Real is the Trump Administration’s New Flexibility with North Korea?
Jason Hirthler
The Journalists Do The Shouting
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Pâté Politics in the Time of Trump and Pelosi
Andrew Levine
The Electoral Circus as the End of Its Initial Phase Looms
David Swanson
Earth Over the Brink
Ron Jacobs
Presidential Papers
Robert Hunziker
The Flawed Food Dependency
Dave Lindorff
Defeating the Trump Administration’s Racist, Republican-Rescuing Census Corruption
Martha Rosenberg
Pathologizing Kids, Pharma Style
Kathleen Wallace
Too Horrible to Understand, Too Horrible to Ignore
Ralph Nader
An Unsurpassable Sterling Record of Stamina!
Paul Tritschler
Restricted View: the British Legacy of Eugenics
John Feffer
Trump’s Bluster Diplomacy
Thomas Knapp
Did Jeffrey Epstein “Belong to Intelligence?”
Nicholas Buccola
Colin Kaepernick, Ted Cruz, Frederick Douglass and the Meaning of Patriotism
P. Sainath
It’s Raining Sand in Rayalaseema
Charles Davis
Donald Trump’s Fake Isolationism
Michael Lukas
Delisting Wolves and the Impending Wolf Slaughter
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Shaking Off Capitalism for Ecological Civilization