Ironic: Technology may make the humanities more relevant than ever

by Ryan Streeter on October 26, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

As a humanities guy (my BA, MA, and PhD were all humanities degrees) with my daughter in a classical liberal arts charter school and my son in a classical liberal arts private school, I couldn’t help but enjoy Michael Malone’s WSJ op-ed on the humanities. While I often publicly argue for the importance of STEM education to meet the needs of today’s economy, I have been uneasy for awhile with our preoccupation with science and technology. It has seemed to me (I’ll write another post at some point to explain why) that the humanities are highly relevant to today’s hi-tech world. Malone’s column helps explain why:

A few months back I invited a friend to speak in front of my professional writing class. Santosh Jayaram is the quintessential Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur: tech-savvy, empirical, ferociously competitive, and a veteran of Google, Twitter and a new start-up, Dabble. Afraid that he would simply run over my writing students, telling them to switch majors before it was too late, I asked him not to crush the kids’ hopes any more than they already were.

Santosh said, “Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.” He explained: Twenty years ago, if you wanted to start a company, you spent a month or so figuring out the product you wanted to build, then devoted the next 10 or 12 months to developing the prototype, tooling up and getting into full production.

These days, he said, everything has been turned upside down. Most products now are virtual, such as iPhone apps. You don’t build them so much as construct them from chunks of existing software code—and that work can be contracted out to hungry teams of programmers anywhere in the world, who can do it in a couple of weeks.

But to get to that point, he said, you must spend a year searching for that one undeveloped niche that you can capture. And you must also use that time to find angel or venture investment, establish strategic partners, convince talented people to take the risk and join your firm, explain your product to code writers and designers, and most of all, begin to market to prospective major customers. And you have to do all of that without an actual product.

“And how do you do that?” Santosh said. “You tell stories.” Stories, he said, about your product and how it will be used that are so vivid that your potential stakeholders imagine it already exists and is already part of their daily lives. Almost anything you can imagine you can now build, said Santosh, so the battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent. “That’s why I want to meet your English majors,” he said.

Asked once what made his company special, Steve Jobs replied: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”