The Water the Frog Boils In

The last few days I’ve been watching presentations from LISA and Velocity on the difficulties and rewards of the cultural transformation needed by a lean, agile DevOps practice. It’s pleasant to be reminded of the range of interests of those in this field; I dislike falling into caricature. So while I generally enjoy John Naughton‘s writing in The Guardian, I’ve been bothered by a piece of his from last November on how the technorati don’t fully consider the ethics of what they do – and so implement things like Facebook – but might have if they’d had a more humanist college education.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid? The cynical answer is they knew about the potential dark side all along and didn’t care, because to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths. Personally I think that’s unlikely, although among their number are some very peculiar characters: one thinks, for example, of Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel – Trump’s favourite techie; and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber.

So what else could explain the astonishing naivety of the tech crowd? My hunch is it has something to do with their educational backgrounds. Take the Google co-founders. Sergey Brin studied mathematics and computer science. His partner, Larry Page, studied engineering and computer science. Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, where he was studying psychology and computer science, but seems to have been more interested in the latter.

Now mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines – intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history – or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.

While I agree with a humanist, liberal education, and believe that our secondary and collegiate educational systems are too oriented toward the perceived needs of the workplace, the computer industry in practice attracts a lot of people who did not study computer science: people who were, for example, history majors. Peter Thiel, mentioned above and formerly of PayPal, holds both a B. A. in philosophy and a J. D. from Stanford, with nary a science degree in sight.

Nevertheless, it’s often the case that it is the makers of tools who think deeply about how they used, and those who use them who do not. This is not, of course, to say that everything is rational, or that there aren’t people who act unthinkingly, but engineers do spend a fair amount of time considering the consequences of the latest novelty. Some of them happen to read science fiction — and if there’s been a class of people who has thought long and hard about their tools and their effects on society, it has been the authors and readers of science fiction (and the Amish). So do the fine folks in Marketing, though sometimes it’s hard to tell.

It’s not that there’s no thinking going on, though that’s true in some cases, but that the answers are disagreeable. A more apt politically relevant example, Mencius Moldbug, a computer programmer by trade, has spilled much ink thinking about his place in the world. His work is seminal fluid for the “alt-right.” Perhaps if he were calmly discussing the joy of monarchy on an academic quadrangle surrounded by ivy-clad brick it might be more respectable. Perhaps not; he doesn’t seem interested in the fuzziness of dealing with people. And that is, after all, what the humanities require.

Looking for an explanation for Facebook other than “asshole“?

Try Wall Street or Madison Avenue.

This is a cultural fault. And, as I’ve heard a couple of times the past few days, the real values of a firm are shown by who gets rewarded or let go. Facebook, et al., have been rewarded, handsomely, for doing exactly what it is they are doing. Why should they stop? We have consistently affirmed for some time now that earning a profit by any means necessary is the best and highest purpose of mankind: “Greed is good.”

A culture is defined by what it preserves and what it casts aside. Education talks mostly about HOW to do something, not WHAT to do or WHY. We leave those questions to the wider culture, which, at least at the moment, rewards the pursuit of wealth and power.


Also published on Medium.