Why technologists need the humanities right now (including me)

For Fall Quarter, 2018, UX Night School is doing something different. Instead of the hands-on workshops we’ve offered since 2016, we’re teaching a reading seminar on Technology, Design, and Ethics. Join us!

I shouldn’t have to tell you, but it’s imperative that designers and developers cultivate their own humanity. We should do so in order to build things that help other humans. We should hope to inspire humanity in others

It’s a professional responsibility, and one we’ve overlooked for way too long.

Yet, I keep being reminded, about privacy, about consent.

About how little thought has been put towards human rights and human dignity by my peers: designers, engineers, and everyone else who consumes, supports, maintains, or just observes the technology industry. And then I take a deep breath and wonder what I should do about it, what I could do about it.

“Your education is something no one can take away from you”, my abuela told me, and she was right. I learned so much by studying the humanities that has helped me as a technologist. We understand the problems of human experience in completely new and different ways when we seek them in context.   

In my own research process, and in my daily life as a citizen, I try to seek out humanity in broad forms: in stories, in art, in logical frameworks. I like to think about ideas over the span of generations.  I like to think about ethics, but also in relation to aesthetics, politics, and poetics, like Plato and Aristotle did.

I find that when I am under stress, unsure of my direction, or just wanting to do better, connecting with the wealth of human experience through reading, writing, and, if I’m particularly lucky, talking about what I’ve witnessed with a group of people, is the most valuable, illuminating thing.

What are the humanities? I like this definition from Stanford:

The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.

To study and engage with the humanities means connecting with the past, and our present, to solve the problems of the future.

If you went to school for engineering or design, you might not have had a ton of exposure to the humanities, and that’s okay. Or maybe you have, and it’s been awhile. One of the big reasons why I started UX Night School is to find gaps in lifelong learning and find ways to fill them.  

The transition between Summer and Fall seems to inspire the humanist in me. Of course, back-to-school schedule changes seem to put many of us in a contemplative mood, as do the Jewish High Holidays. My family and friends seem to have countless birthdays, anniversaries, and milestones during the month of September.

And then there’s September 11, a day that seems to bring back memories for anyone who can remember it.   

Looking back at that fall of 2001, it was also a time when I was trying to figure things out, and a period of time that would shape my life and career. I was living in Olympia, Washington, where I’d moved the year before, and about to start college for the third time at the small state college there, Evergreen.

That past year had been spent trying to figure out my next steps. I had worked several jobs, including freelance music writing, cleaning offices and food service. I was relieved to have found the newest one, with the local YMCA’s before-and-after school childcare program. Even though the job required me to be there before 7 AM each morning, I liked it - I liked the kids, I got along well enough with the women I worked with, and I liked serving snacks, playing soccer, and doing homework and crafts.

The Tuesday of September 11 was the second week of the school year for the kids, but Evergreen’s Fall Quarter had yet to start. I heard about the first attacks on the radio first when driving to the school, then watched the second tower fall on television in the library, away from the kids shuffling into the cafeteria. My coworkers, both speculated. I felt like I had been punched. All I could say when pressed by another co-worker was “just think about the role America plays in the world”.

I was in shock, of course, but also at a loss for reaction. I had no real ties to New York or DC, had never visited either city. But yet I was watching the events of the day unfold, full of horror I’d never known. I had to keep it together enough to get through the morning shift then return in the afternoon. I scanned the kids, I exchanged glances with the parents. I watched the kids attentively in those next few days, looking for clues to what they saw and heard. I wondered how I was supposed to be in the world in response.

The next week, when my own school year started, I was feeling lost as ever, wondering if I should even be there, in college, in the Pacific Northwest, far away from Texas. My past attempts at college had not been successful, and yet I knew I wanted to engage with ideas, to do new things, to become a serious, intellectual person. I was enrolled in a program that quarter (the school works on a “coordinated studies” model) on the theme of Tragedy, taught by a folklorist, a literary scholar, and a classical philosopher.

One often under-discussed element of humanities education is this: reading texts in a group is a transformative experience.

That fall of 2001, I met with and talked about tragedy and goodness with a few dozen strangers. We read the Greek tragedies, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and Martha Nussbaum’s book, the Fragility of Goodness.

My fellow students and I were a diverse bunch, ranging from 17 year-olds from the Seattle suburbs to transfer students like me, to older folks who were coming back to school after serving in the military or raising families. None of us were used to doing it, but in those few months, we talked and wrote and thought about serious ideas in ways we hadn’t before. It was a light, for me in a dark time, and it shaped the way I thought.

Studying the humanities was, in that scary time in my life, what I needed to keep moving forward. I needed to find grounding, ways of thinking about and understanding humanity, goodness, about tragedy, in order to be able to even hope of doing good in the world.  

Today, I find myself in a similar position, perhaps older and wiser. I’m completely overwhelmed by the political and ethical questions in the world around me. It’s my privilege, as a teacher, to explore this with my community.