Have some humanity

Posted on Oct 13, 2011

This article was first published in Entelechy (Issue 29, September 2011), the in-house DA-IICT magazine.

“Technology [is] the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”

-- Max Frisch

DA-IICT is one of the few colleges in India to make humanities courses mandatory for students. It is sad then that most students treat it as a course to pass, and not as a way to gain insight into the world they’ll spend the rest of their lives in. I am going to try to convince you that humanities courses are perhaps more essential than even the technical courses.

Observe the typical young engineer as he gets placed and eventually graduates from college. Engineers used to have dreams. That is why we have the Taj Mahal and the Golden Gate bridge. Today the most skilled engineers end up sitting at a desk writing non-user-friendly software for some mega-corp. Or they start a startup which aims to make another form of real communication virtual and ‘social’ without considering the repercussions.

The humanities have always been a has-been simply because they offer no financial value. A poet does not produce a life-saving vaccine or the next Fortune 500 company.

The fundamental schism lies in the fact that engineers want concrete answers to problems, while the humanities never answers anything. It is about concepts and interpretations and I think engineers find that hard to fathom. Trust me, try it once, it is fun.

We engineers are children of the binary, decisions are absolute, choices are fundamental. That is not how the real world works. The humanities teach us to look hard into those gray areas, and how they end up shaping history. I remember in the Environmental Studies class when the professor remarked that in the case of the Narmada project, you could not simply relocate the tribals. An economist or engineer is trained to see the world in terms of resources and equations and profits and margins. Our problems are so simple. We think that by throwing more hardware at it, or building better technology things will fix themselves. That to build a dam, we can simply move the people out and give them good homes. But we have no way to measure social cost. So the moving of tribals seemed a trivial problem. But the land they live on has been theirs for thousands of generations and they associate traditions and religion with it. It would be like evicting you from your home. All technological problems are finally attempts to improve society and the context in which they are implemented is essential.

Even if you don’t want to be the decision maker or ideal citizen or a analysis spewing geek when all that your friends wanted to watch in the movie was the explosions, there is one concrete reason that you should take atleast a few humanities courses.

Writing. The Indian education system especially thrives on canned solutions for much of school. Even the technical courses in college do not require writing papers or projects. But much of real-world engineering today is a team activity where written communication is a very important skill. For all your career you will be writing documentation, making reports and presenting findings to your boss. A good command of English and an ability to deliver crisp writing can help immensely. The humanities courses will be the only ones where you will have to analyse some aspect of art or literature, critique it and back up your opinions with arguments. Since you can’t do a copy-paste in humanities (since it doesn’t have any concrete answers), it is a good lesson in writing.

Finally remember that as bits seep more and more into our lives, our cultures are framed by the file formats and user interfaces and other mechanisms that we will make. And they will enforce the way we think. Do we want to end up in Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World? Facebook friends vs real friends, privacy vs sharing, customer-friendly or corporate-friendly, patent laws and other important ‘wars’ are going to start erupting. Yet I find engineers have no awareness for any of this as they sit in their cubes creating the most widely propagated products that ever existed, constantly connected via a medium whose drivers are human. All these are areas where theologians and philosophers and lawyers have been arguing for centuries, in the eternally fluid and muddy concepts of property, privacy and ethics. Except they used to be able to make these decisions before the technology spread. Now App stores and locked-in products arise everyday, social networks grow exponentially and international surveillance is easy as pie, and law makers cannot catch up, so the engineer will have to specify those decisions by product design itself. There you and I will enter into the indefinite world of humanities because these problems have never arisen before. Only someone who understands both technology and humanities can solve this, otherwise we end up with abominations like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act or Software Patent Law based on real patent laws when it doesn’t fit the software model. This requires an ability to mull over these concepts and use the various interpretations debated in the past and the present. In some literary passage somewhere may lie the perfect system you strive for. The times, they are a changin.

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