Fuzzy logic: Tech or art? Scott Hartley on why liberal arts will rule the digital world
Scott Hartley’s engineering classmates at the universities of Stanford or Columbia also studied literature and philosophy. “They sat next to me when I read Locke or Rousseau and debated structures of government, or read Dostoevsky and inquired into the depths of human psychology,” recalls the author of The Fuzzy and The Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World, a new book that gains importance in the context of students unduly pressurised to gain admission into institutes of technology.
Scott’s own friends also participated in school clubs for music, arts or sport, while spending their summers interning in start-ups, banks, or non-profits. “They might sum themselves up as ‘techie’, but half of their success is due to their ‘fuzzy’ abilities. These are the skills that enable a successful entrepreneur, not just their ability to write code,” reasons Scott, who’s a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and worked for Google, Facebook, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Centre for Internet & Society, and the White House too, as a Presidential Innovation Fellow. Excerpts from an email interaction:
Firstly, thank you, genuinely, for this book! It is an invaluable eye-opener for many of us. We'd like to begin by asking for your viewpoint, from the West, of highly educated, multi-talented students coming out of India to seek success at technology companies in the United States. How would you assess the Indian education system, given what you are witnessing with their finest pupils, out in the West?
In India and in any country where students are placed into courses of study on the basis of marks there is an alignment around capability but not passion. In America, where anyone can choose to study anything, more or less regardless of test scores or marks, education fixates on passion rather than capability. In many ways American education takes a “growth mindset” rather than “fixed mindset” approach where it implicitly accepts that even if you didn’t ace an exam as a teenager you can become an exceptional doctor, lawyer, or engineer. And even if you aced your math exams, you may love poetry more than anything, and ought to dedicate your life to sharing this passion with others.
There is no doubt, across the world, that India has a reputation for generating top engineers. This is in part because it is exceptionally difficult to place into an IIT or equivalent system, so graduates are clearly smart. And it is understandable that this is the system, given the need to train and manage the education of over a billion people. But if the goal is to train the most capable innovators, I would argue that’s another idea all together. Innovation that is of greatest value is something that solves a problem, and to solve a problem we have to study and understand human beings. If science is the study of the natural world, engineering our attempt to harness it, the humanities are the study of human nature, or our place within the natural world. The greatest innovators I have come across in Silicon Valley, both Indian and American by birth, are not those who are pure technologists or engineers. They are those who have deep curiosity across domains, who are highly creative, collaborative, empathetic, and able to socialise their product and idea to others.
There's also the matter of a so-called "brain drain" and also, of a "reverse brain drain". Several bright, young Indian students are also making their way back home. Some people have suggested that this is because most technology professionals are not allowed to retain intellectual rights over their creative work for larger corporations and companies. Would you agree with this analysis? How would you like such companies to change things, and perhaps, offer some ownership for creative ideas, and inputs?
It’s very hard to retain the most innovative employees in a large organisation. And there is always a trade-off between incumbent companies seeking innovation and new upstarts seeking scale. If a startup can achieve scale before an incumbent can achieve innovation, then the startup will likely supplant the old guard. At Google, senior managers did a good job balancing between what they call “rock stars” and “superstars.” On any team you want some people to be your “rock stars,” or the bedrock of the team. These people are really good at the core job, and really happy doing their work. But then you also have “superstars” or people who are innovative, want a new challenge, and want to shake things up.
Obviously, your whole team can’t be made up of superstars or you’d never get anything done. But if your whole team is made up of people content doing the job the way it’s always been done, then the company is going to lose in the long run. Companies need to balance these two personality types, and give autonomy and resources to those who want to rock the boat and be innovative, or else of course they’re going to leave, and then they’re going to put you out of business. At a company like Google employees don’t retain ownership of IP, but they will be rewarded for being innovative. Many of the products we know, like GMail, were created during employee personal “20-percent time,” where they were allowed to work on projects unrelated to their core jobs. This is how Google remains an innovative company.
The big question remains about deeply set mindsets to do with technology versus liberal arts, in terms of chosen fields of profession. Valerie Strauss' suggestion, ‘Trashing the liberal arts seems to have become practically a sport’ is extremely right about the present day. Even today, the general mindset among parents and teachers in India remains against the liberal arts. How would you encourage people to change such ways of thinking? Certainly, it will take more than a few books, or seminars, or even success stories - to eventually result in lasting, wide-ranging change. Yet, how would you give direction to such a line of thought?
The Liberal Arts is a concept that is thousands of years old, and dates back to Antiquity. The idea comes from the Latin artes liberales or the notion of freeing the mind through breadth of study, from logic and mathematics to physics, literature, philosophy, and ethics. In that time many toiled in very narrow jobs, and those men and women who sought to truly free their minds studied the Liberal, or free, Arts.
The irony today is that the narrow, or routine jobs have might have changed from blacksmith to Android developer, but those seeking to become leaders or innovators will immediately appreciate the value of understanding design, the psychology of their user, which they’ll likely come to understand through interviews which are another term for anthropology. Anyone who’s managed a team will know the challenge of communication, the requirements of empathy in motivating a team of people to collaborate on a task. Anyone who has interrogated an idea, market, or product direction without a black-and-white answer will appreciate that these conversations are exactly those from a course in philosophy.
Whether it’s Jeff Bezos at Amazon requiring that every meeting begin with a written memo on the purpose and goals of the session, or Steve Jobs talking about how every innovation at Apple was about standing at the intersection of technology and the Liberal Arts, the most innovative companies already embrace this idea that it is not about pure technology or pure humanities, but a blending of both. People also forget that LinkedIn was founded by a philosopher, Pinterest by a political scientist, Airbnb by designers, Reddit and AOL by history majors, Slack by a philosopher, and YouTube is run by a history and literature major. One need only listen to someone like Anand Mahindra to understand the value of the humanities in leadership.
Tell us about the importance of social skills - and the lack of it, as you see it, among aspiring technology professionals emerging from India. We're well-aware about language proficiency levels among Indians, especially given the BPO and back-office customer service industries. Our social skill sets are the pride of many other industries, from hospitality to education, and entertainment to medicine. How important are social skills for both the fuzzies and the techies to grow together?
There is a lot of focus on automation and the future of work, where technology is going to impact jobs. We tend to focus on learning technology as the key way to guarantee relevance and job security, but I’d argue that in addition to basic ability to engage with technology, social skills are even more important. Technology is good at doing repeatable tasks, from simple things to immensely complicated analysis using new tools like machine learning. But as technology does more and more of these rote and scripted tasks, the remaining tasks are actually those that require the human touch. The soft skills such as communication, collaboration, empathy, complex problem solving are actually what differentiate us from machines, and give us the ultimate job security in a world of robots and artificial intelligence.
At Harvard there is an economist named David Deming who discusses how the highest growth job areas are actually not in pure technology but in what he calls “high math, high social.” These are jobs where there is both an engagement with technology (the techie) and a high demand for social skills (the fuzzy). In health or medicine we tend to fear technology taking over the job of a radiologist, for example, but we forget that this job consists of much more than screening images. Of course a tool like machine learning can help save time in identifying clear-cut cases, but this only liberates the doctor to spend more time on patient engagement, empathy, or helping someone with a more obscure case.
Give us the most hope-filled and inspiring insights, to share with our readers, about the potential of the liberal arts, and the need for distinctive human abilities especially in the technology world. How valuable, in your view, would a really strong liberal arts education prove to be in the future?
In the 1990s if you wanted to be a technologist, chances are you had to understand semi-conductors or how to set up your own server infrastructure. Today there’s Amazon Web Services. The building blocks of technology have become so much more accessible that today the comparative advantage for an entrepreneur is no longer in knowing these basic technical things; rather it is in applying the technology to a huge industry or problem. We used to talk about “full stack developers” or needing to know many coding languages. Today we talk about “full stack integrators,” or people who know how to locate the building blocks, and plug them together to address deeply human problems.
If you look at the biggest problems facing companies like Google or Facebook, they’re issues of data, privacy, and civil liberties. They’re issues of democracy. In autonomous vehicles, they’re issues of law, regulation, and the anthropology of how to design for mixed human and machine environments that are cross cultural, and deeply complex. For all of these reasons, we need an equal mix of people studying technology and people studying human nature and where to apply new tools.
How do you see the future of skill-based jobs in a future of robots and automation? How much of the idea of intellectual power would you accord to writers, artists and people in creative fields? How does all of this play into the larger idea of opinion making, and influencing public opinion for genuine concern and global order?
Technology is forever advancing, and logically we can extend this idea out to validate all of our fears. But in the foreseeable future I don’t see technology making inroads into any genuine creativity or consciousness. Engineering is our human attempt to harness science, and the natural world. There is so little we understand about neurology and consciousness that any attempts to mimic it in technological form are overhyped and wildly exaggerated.
If you look at one of the most advanced breakthroughs in artificial intelligence in Deep Mind’s AlphaGo, the program that defeated the world champion player in the ancient Chinese game of Go, there’s no one on that team of engineers who would tell you that the computer was conscious or creative. It was deeply powerful, driven by immense amounts of data and exceptionally complex probabilistic thinking, but was constrained to a very small, very defined context and problem. And the other thing we forget is that it was built by dozens of human beings and millions and millions of dollars.
Technological capability is the first step, and the substitution of labour for capital is another all together. While a robot might make a good samosa, there’s also something to say for the many other functions someone in that role provides. As technology takes over these highly structured problems, creativity is actually one of the most human skills we can engage and nourish. AI might be able to take a corporate report and generate the bones of a news story, but this doesn’t obviate the job of journalist. It only makes the journalist’s role one more focused on interviewing or storytelling. They no longer need to spend time hunting for the facts. They can spend their time adding flourish of narrative creativity.
How much of this, would you say, is really about a certain circle of time? We've all learned about the industrial revolution, witnessed cultural upheavals in history, and seen so many changes up until the present age. The studies of art, literature and humanities have, invariably, through the course of time, given humans a sense of respite, and helped build good judgment. In the present day, however, much of this is seen as anti-establishment. Artists and writers are considered people against the system, and stereotyped as rebels, nonconformists and dissidents. There is more political literature and art emerging around us, and being celebrated, than ever before. How do you imagine that balance will be tipped over, not merely in the context of US President Donald Trump's policies and standpoints?
It’s a great question, and I think great comedy, art and literature is always deeply trenchant. The art is in the ability to identify an uncomfortable truth, and expose it in a way that provokes, and forces reflection. As new tools spread and understanding is thin, there is wild optimism and hope. But as these tools settle in and become ubiquitous, we begin to recognise their false promise and perhaps overreach. Facebook has connected the world in a profound way, but post-ubiquity we realise that this comes with a new medium, but not new human nature.
The very same, perennial challenges of privacy, governance, censorship, and democracy have merely been extended to a blue and white website. And with this realisation, art, comedy, and literature will offer commentary on the missteps and failures of these new tools. The need for study of these fundamentally human subjects has not gone away; it has only been amplified by technology.
The interesting thing is that there has always been a fear of the new, and a counter-movement. When the spoken word went to papyrus as writing, Antiquity tells us that people feared loss of memory. The oratorical traditions would die away with the rise of the scribe. The abacus then calculator and then computer removed the need for basic mental calculation. You might laugh at how few phone numbers you have memorised, but they’re all stored away in your mobile phone. This idea of external cognitive mind, and our fear of relying on outside technology is not century, but millennia, old. And the corresponding commentary about these fears and promises are a perennial and deeply human reflection.
There are still several broad issues that this book appears to sidestep, for the moment - concerns about gender equality, for instance. Was it a conscious decision to discuss the liberal arts in a gender-free manner? Would you like to offer us a few thoughts about the liberal arts actually presenting further growth prospects for women? Then again, wouldn't you agree that women are far better equipped when it comes to understanding, appreciating and furthering the agenda of the liberal arts?
Gender equality and access to opportunity in science and engineering is still a huge topic, and one that requires attention. The way I wanted to address this issue was by highlighting and celebrating some of the talented female founders who are some of the most innovative CEOs in Silicon Valley and beyond. In speaking on the book around the world, many young women have told me they identify with these founders, and it has inspired them to consider a path in technology.
Katelyn Gleason studied theater arts and was a Broadway actress before becoming CEO of a healthcare technology company. She uses her tremendous charisma to hire a team around her, and motivate dozens of engineers, and today she runs a multi-hundred million dollar business processing billions of health records. Similarly, Katrina Lake went from retail consultant to the youngest, second-richest self-made woman in America in under five years as the founder and CEO of Stitch Fix, a data science fashion company.
These exceptional women are not the exceptions but fast becoming the norm. To me they illustrate what is possible. In my book, I wanted to celebrate the women who have created some of the most innovative companies in the world, and who are changing this system, but the truth is I didn’t go seeking them. Many of the most compelling CEOs in technology are women and so profiling them was less about making a commentary on gender than it was about purely highlighting the most competent, best technologists in the world.
Empirically, it’s true that there are more men in science and engineering and more women in the humanities, but as for advancing the interests of the Liberal Arts I don’t think it’s not about gender at all. We need more people from the sciences, whether men or women, also engaging with the study of human nature, psychology, and problems. And we need more people from the humanities to recognise the power of technology, and not fear the change it brings. Those people, regardless of gender, who embrace both the technological and social skills necessary to navigate a more collaborative human and machine world will be those best poised and flexible to manage the continual changes.
What advice would you offer to young leaders in management positions, about valuing opinions from the liberal arts, alongside inputs from technology and skill-based experts? What manner of radical and sweeping change would you like to see when it comes to such management, and leadership-oriented exercises?
Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, delivered an address to all of the cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which is one of the premier leadership programs. In her address, she advised all leaders to read and study history. Through the dust and danger and disorienting strangeness of foreign lands, there are timeless stories we can call upon. We draw lessons from the Mahabarata or The Iliad. These heroic tales frame lessons and questions of morality that, though thousands of years old, do not change. This is the study of our human nature, who we are, and why we matter.
And this is why at a place like West Point every cadet spends four years studying engineering and philosophy, military art history, and many of the great books of literature. Leaders are those who understand human psychology and history, those who can listen empathetically, and interrogate an idea deeply and objectively, even though there may not be a perfect answer. Leadership is about dealing with other human beings – in short, it is entirely about soft skills.
I’d like to see less of an adversarial framing of the Liberal Arts and technology because they are equally vital. This is CP Snow’s concept of the “Two Cultures,” and how it’s not about one or the other, but both together. We ought to structure our own study, and the composition of our teams, by blending perspectives from these many sides.
There remains something to be said about the pleasures that one can derive from the liberal arts, especially in a world surrounded by negativity, and cocooned in profiteering. The idea of deriving genuine pleasure, and also of sharing and spreading joy among people, is one that has for long been securely a prerogative of the arts. How would you encourage people of the liberal arts to rid people of negativity, and do their best to fill our world with hope and positive energy?
While we focus on technology, and the new, new thing, the questions we ask are the same as they’ve always been: “What does it mean to live a good life?” These philosophical questions remain unchanged, even with big data, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Technology may add marginally more convenience, and jobs may change, but the questions will not. The gravest problems we face are ones of health, education, poverty, equality, and access to opportunity.
The application of technology to any of these problems requires the study of anthropology and sociology. And as technology changes our social fabric, we lean on the lessons of psychology and political science to help us understand its impact. The Liberal Arts are about engaging with, wrestling with, the ideas of what it means to be human. The singular point of technology is to address human problems, so it cannot be disentangled from a deep understanding of ourselves.
Penguin Random House India, `599