Technocrat and the Humanist

Our human mind is a source of perpetual conflict. For example Reason Vs Faith is a recurring conflict since the dawn of human civilization. The conflict between the technocrat and humanist is of a more recent origin. In this article a leading technocrat, who has led one of premier research lab on IT, tackles this conflict between techie and humies with the fine balance of the old Hellenic mind and offers practical hints for bridging the gap between the humanist and technological streams of knowledge.

Key Perspectives

The nature of the contemporary conflict between the techies and humies; practical suggestions for resolving the conflicts; editorial comments.

The Contemporary Split

The humie-techie split is a fairly recent distinction. Today, this split is so ingrained in our society and in us that we accept it as a universal truth. It starts from our earliest school days and is even considered cute. Children who like math are expected to dislike literature, and vice versa. Parents reinforce the polarization. “Mary is like me. She hates numbers, but she is great with art.” Or “Jimmy is always tinkering with toys, just like his father tinkers with electronics and cars. He’ll be a great engineer”. Later on the polarization continues. Young adults who go to college specialize in either the humanities or science and technology. Institutions add to the conspiracy by focusing on one side of the divide at the expense of the other: “The student who underpays at the supermarket is either from Harvard and can’t count, or from MIT and can’t read.” Later in life the divisions become calcified. The artist scoffs at the engineer’s insensitivity. The engineer laughs at the artist’s sensitivity. Humanists defiantly repeat inside their heads and over loud-speakers the mantra that technology is a servile art to human purpose, while techies assert with equal defiance and repetition that humans are merely meat machines.

Most humanists still think that technology is like wood and nails. They believe that people should first decide what objectives they want to pursue, based on the best humanistic thinking they can muster, and then go out and buy the technologies needed to construct their plans. In the days of the steam engine and electricity, that was somewhat the case. However, in the age of nuclear power, synthetic drugs, and information infrastructures, this notion is no longer valid. In our increasingly complex world, technological and social issues are becoming more and more intertwined. Whether designing a twenty-first-century automobile, deciding where to locate a nuclear plant, planning the growth of a city, leading a large organization, setting the privacy policies of a new health care system, or deciding where to live, we are all increasingly confronted with many mutually interacting technological and humanistic issues.

More important, new human purposes often arise out of new technologies. How can you know that you have the option to build shelters for the poor if you are completely unaware of hammers and that they can be used to build houses faster, cheaper, and better than clay and leaves? How can you set out to match the “help needed” people with the “help offered” people on a worldwide basis if you don’t know about information infrastructures and electronic proximity and how they can make such matches possible?

On the other side of the divide, scientists and technologists often become so preoccupied in their quests that the endeavours themselves become their principle goals. “Don’t give me all that soft stuff about human purpose. All I want to do is pursue scientific truth in the lab. Let somebody else deal with purpose and the administrative details and all the other nonsense that keeps science and technology from advancing.” Other techies offer less stereotyped arguments: “Radar was invented as an implement of war. No one could have anticipated then that forty years later it would become the cornerstone of the world’s air transportation system. Therefore it is fruitless to worry about purpose.” Such techie views are as one sided as the humie views we discussed earlier. Good technological innovation arises out of human purpose just as often as good human purpose arises out of knowledge of technology. (1)The techie-humie split has hurt both of these avenues to progress.

The growing division between techies and humies – really among the pieces within us blown apart by the Enlightenment – goes well beyond limiting our ability to comprehend and manage the complexities that surround us. The trouble it causes is bigger than it seems, affects all of us, and can be heard increasingly from all kinds of voices. The world’s people, having drifted away from their wholeness in the pre-Enlightenment age, sought comfort in the good life that the material gains of technology would bring. Having largely achieved these gains in the industrially rich world, we have discovered, often painfully, that something is still missing. Young people started telling us this by turning to nature, searching for spiritual directions, and moving to drugs and other artificial pleasures as their adult role models veered toward the amassing of wealth, greater self-interest, and greater pleasures. Psychiatry flourished and moral compasses increasingly began to point in all directions. The dissonance within us got louder.

This unrest got translated to dissatisfaction with government and many people’s conviction that technology was the primary cause of all these problems in the first place. That’s as ridiculous as a society of beavers concluding that the dams they construct are the cause of their unhappiness. Like beavers, people are part of nature and build things for their purposes, which are just as much a part of nature. To accuse technology of bringing ills to humanity is no different than accusing the hammer you built of smashing your thumb. Of course it did, but you wielded it. And even though it caused you some pain, it also helped build your house. The alternative we sometimes hear, of stopping technological progress to save ourselves from further trouble, is just as unnatural, for it shackles the human spirit by keeping us from exploring the unknown.

People’s discontent and search for purpose is a symptom of a deeper cause. I believe that we are really longing for a way to blend those old forces that held us whole for millennia, weaving a strong net around reason, faith, nature, and man, until the Enlightenment came and yanked them apart.

The Information Marketplace, if left unchecked, will further aggravate this polarization, past what we may be willing to tolerate, and may well increase human dissatisfaction to the point where we will seek radical and wholesale change. If the physical technologies of the Industrial Revolution were responsible for setting the technologist apart from the humanist, then the information technologies with their disembodied virtuality and their disregard for physical proximity will further aggravate the split. Humies who already look with some contempt at the negative consequences for humanity of the factory and the automobile will double their contempt when confronted with the impersonal and remote processing and transporting of information, let alone the unbearable fake of virtual reality. Meanwhile, computer technologists and information specialists, who already feel sorry for the old-fashioned engineers who must remain at work within the constraints of the physical world, will barely see the humanists across the great divide.

The rest of us will feel this heightened aggravation of the techie-humie split as a further reduction of our ability to cope with the increasingly complex world around us. Greater polarization among the parts of us dissociated by the Enlightenment will widen the disparity between the mechanics of out everyday lives and our deeper sense of human purpose. We will feel increasingly oppressed by our own dissatisfaction.

Healing the Split

That is the big challenge before us at the dawn of the twenty-first century: to embark on the unification of our technology with our humanity.

That doesn’t mean that everybody will need to learn calculus and Latin. Nor does it mean that we will eliminate our various specialties, for we will still need them to cope with the complexities around us. It does mean, however, concerted action from all of us towards embracing, understanding, and accepting our two halves, whether they are within us or around us. How might this be done?

First, the high priests of the split will have to provide a good example by changing their ways: humanists will have to shed their snobbish beliefs about the servile arts, and technologists will have to shed their contempt for the irrelevance of humanistic purpose and teachings. And both sides will need to actively bridge the techie-humie gap in their reflections and in their actions. Second, parents and educators will have to help young people (and themselves) learn about and experience the exciting and practical prospects for human wholeness. Toys, childhood stories, and the examples they set can go a long way towards instilling the values of integrated thinking in young minds. Curricula in high school and especially in the university will have to change in a big way, combining techie and humie knowledge and approaches in the teaching of the arts, the sciences, humanities, and management. Consider, for example, a hard-core humie field like literature or history; it could be recouched to explain how a hot current problem like clashing national cultures on the Web has been “handled” in its various incarnations from time immemorial.

Ultimately, all of us can contribute through our everyday actions and through our professions. Business-people can create new jobs across the humie-techie divide. They can begin sending the techiest of techies to make sales calls, they may not be as smooth as trained salespeople, but their experiences will certainly cause products to be improved. Politicians can begin learning about technology and using it is their plans, because most of them come from a humanistic background. They can also help enact laws that will facilitate, perceive and interact with our world in its full techie-humie splendor by reading, observing, and learning about “the other side” and by searching for opportunities to combine these extremes towards profit or self-satisfaction. In short, all of us need to recognize that we are more than we thought or were taught, and that the pursuit of our broader capabilities can hold great benefit for ourselves and for society.

Note: 1. Can technology generate any enduring human purpose? It is a debatable point. Technology can help in achieving a human purpose in a more efficient and cost-effective manner; it can also indicate and help in realizing greater possibilities in the material and economic domain. Sometimes the ill-effects of technology like the possibility of a nuclear or ecological catastrophe or increasing materialism may lead to a rethinking of the aims and values of human development. But the higher aims and values of human existence can be discovered only by a deep reflection and intuition into the ultimate truths and universal laws of man, life and nature. This can be done creatively only by the spiritual, philosophical, ethical and intuitive mind and not by the pragmatic and utilitarian mind of technology. So technology cannot do much to generate any enduring human purpose or provide any new insight into fundamental human values like truth, beauty, goodness, harmony, unity, liberty, equality. Sometimes pure science may do because pure scientific quest may lead to a better understanding of the universal laws of life and Nature, but not technology. However as the author of this article rightly points out, faculties which correspond to techie and humie are there in every human being and they should not enter into conflict. These faculties within the individual and in the outer world, have to work together in complementing harmony for the wellbeing and progress of the human and terrestrial life. We may have to specialize in any one of these streams of knowledge but this can be done without neglecting or at the expense of the other. To achieve this balance and wholeness, education, humanistic and professional, must inculcate mutual understanding between the spirit and essence of technology and humanism and help in integrating the corresponding faculties in the individual.

- Ed. FDI

Michael Dertozous

Michael Dertouzos was a Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the M.I.T. Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) from 1974 to 2001. Dertouzos was instrumental in defining the World Wide Web Consortium and bringing it to MIT. He was a firm supporter of the GNU Project, Richard Stallman, and the FSF, and their continued presence at MIT. In 1968, he founded Computek, Inc., a manufacturer of graphics and intelligent terminals. Dertouzos was a graduate of Athens College and attended the University of Arkansas on a Fulbright Scholarship. He received his Ph.D. from M.I.T. in 1964 and joined the M.I.T. faculty. He was buried in Athens, at the First Cemetery.

Courtesy: Next Future partially reproduced from the article, “The Age of Unification” with a different title.


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