Fuzzies and Techies: We Can All Get Along

I’ve been reading Scott Hartley’s The Fuzzies and the Techies: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World over the past few days. I find it a frustrating read, not because I disagree with its premise. Indeed, the liberal arts will rule the digital world. Instead, I find this book so galling precisely because its premise is so obvious. Furthermore, the author’s attempts to make his case over eight chapters too many offend the sensibilities of techies who understand his message long before reading word one.

Hartley manages to spray all the best irritants for making techies cry:

  • Call Computer Science a vocational program, as if it were primarily a pathway to jobs and not a way of looking at the world as distinct as any of the other sciences.
  • Reduce Computer Science to computer programming.
  • Confuse computer programming with building websites.
  • Confuse web browsers with search engines, and commit other similar malapropisms. (I mean, if you’re going to criticize the narrowness of a field and contrast it with the depth, breadth, and rigor of other fields, manage to be at least a little rigorous in your command of its terminology.)
  • Reduce computer programming to little more than knowing a language of few words, inflexible rules, odd punctuation, and limited power to express, as if were the typed equivalent to cavemen’s grunting.
  • Portray as the rule rather than as exceptions examples of former liberal arts majors creating successful software-based businesses in an attempt to say that studying Computer Science isn’t all that important.
  • Argue that people can teach themselves the skills and concepts of Computer Science, as if the same cannot be said for learning other fields, which calls into question how the pioneers of any field made it before the advent of the modern school system.
  • Sometimes include the so-called hard sciences in STEM and other times leave them out, depending on the point to be made.
  • Praise the liberal arts for teaching critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving, intimating that Computer Science somehow does not teach those very same things.

That last irritant – the claim that the distinguishing gifts of a liberal arts education are its emphases on creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving – is one I hear frequently. In fact, that is the central theme of Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of the Liberal Arts. While a liberal arts education certainly does offer these things, it isn’t a good argument to use when defending the liberal arts. It suggests to techies like me, far more loudly than the intended point, that the person making the point hasn’t the slightest idea what Computer Scientists do, that they believe that Computer Scientists somehow sling together some code and out pops a solution to any problem, no critical thinking or thought or creativity or actual human-powered problem-solving effort involved. It’s a foolish and slightly offensive mischaracterization of what we techies do.

One of the uglier traits of the poorly educated person is the penchant to simplify and then dismiss points of view or, in this case, entire fields of study, they haven’t taken the time to understand. No one wants to look poorly educated. And yet, when supporters of the liberal arts make the kinds of arguments Hartley and Zakaria make, they stoop to the level of the people on the other side who vacuously claim that studying the liberal arts is useless. They become no better than Rick Scott wondering mockingly whether Florida really needs more anthropologists.

My colleagues in the liberal arts: your fields are beautiful and essential, rich in meaning and mystery and value. So is mine. We need each other. And, to be honest, we techies need you fuzzies more than you need us.

When Eli Whitney launched the Industrial Revolution with his cotton gin, a new economy was born. That economy was built on the increased productivity the new machines enabled. To keep running and advancing, the emerging industries required new expertise, and some of today’s leading engineering schools were created during that era to provide it. An economy doesn’t survive given only supply and no demand. Economies don’t function if there are no customers. The new machines and the technologists who designed, built, and maintained them created their products and conveniences for the rest of the people: the philosophers, the artists, the bankers, the writers, the astronomers, the shop owners, the dreamers. That audience existed long before the machines and their creators did; the machines just helped serve that audience better, primarily by making the heretofore impossible possible.

We techies are the Eli Whitney’s of today. We create the machines – less polluting and a lot less quieter, but machines nevertheless – that serve and empower an audience. Not all technology finds an audience or serves one well, and those innovations flounder and fail. Developing technology carries great cost, and so we can’t just labor away in some dank laboratory creating technologies that don’t solve a problem for people. It takes humans who understand humanity and its needs to channel our tech-loving impulses in directions that help rather than hinder, inspire rather than entrap. We techies need you fuzzies. Heck, we techies need to be fuzzy too.

Technology created for technology’s sake serves only as a pastime. I get excited by new technology in the same way an early-80s gamer would exclaim “Check out those graphics!” upon seeing Activision’s Pitfall for the first time. But we create technology not just because we love it and express ourselves through it, but mostly so that it can be used by an audience of philosophers, artists, bankers, writers, astronomers, shop owners, and dreamers. This second industrial revolution mimics the first: we create technology and train technologists simply to improve human life.

I claimed at the beginning that this was all an obvious argument. Unfortunately, we humans too often miss the obvious. Techies and fuzzies need to stop pretending they know the others’ side well enough to critique it. Instead, we need to work together to identify, create, and apply the right technologies for making today’s most enticing and important impossibilities possible. This is a shared, undeniably human endeavor for which we need each other.

We are on the same team. We can all get along. And yes, you’ll get to rule the digital world. That’s kind of obvious.

 

 

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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