transformació digital
Photo by Ricardo Feriche

The time for humanists

The change during the last few years has been frantic, driven, above all, by an undisputed conviction: those who do not assume the digital transformation will be surpassed. Digital or nothing. The question is not who is the one that should conduct the evolution of technology but on the basis of what principles he does so.
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hen there was still no Internet or anything similar, the director of the digital division of a multinational in the publishing world commented that since he had stopped working for “paper” and he devoted himself to “digital” his level of stress had increased dramatically. “It is hard for me to sleep at night, beforehand I lived better”, he said. It was a department of recent creation that at that time was in charge of CD collections. It is hard to imagine in what state his nervous system might be now if he still belongs to the digital division. Probably he called a long time ago for the return to “paper” or for an early retirement.

The change during the last few years has been frantic, driven, above all, by an undisputed conviction: those who do not assume the digital transformation will be surpassed. Digital or nothing. This evidence has two faces: it means both the opportunity to discover a new world, still uncertain, and also the threat inherent in a technological escalation that we do not control.

Esko Kilpi, a renowned Finnish professor specialized in the post-industrial era economy, argues that future is in the hands of a society focused on human capabilities, augmented by technology. Kilpi argues that technology must be a tool for man, not its replacement. “All business decisions are moral decisions”, Kilpi says. “We see a great deterioration in politics, and I believe that the business sector has to live up to the circumstances. It is time that companies show their sense of responsibility”.

 

Nothing new in the concept, but it seems necessary to remember these moral principles at a time when it seems that the technology walks unleashed, in another direction. The one leading to a massive substitution of human workers. If a machine can do it, why should a man do it?

It is not a new debate. The history of technological changes (must we call them revolutions?) has been accompanied by actions and reflections on the benefits or prejudices of technology. From enterprising enthusiasts to the Manchester luddites that burned factories or the techno-sceptics of the 21st century.

How is it done? How is it possible to prevent technology from getting out of control, at the time of artificial intelligence and Big data?

Some experts advocate for a future of technology in which Humanities will play an important role. Last summer, the Harvard Business Review compiled three recent publications that addressed this issue. In The Fuzzy and the Techie, Scott Hartley, a venture capital investor, argues that technology will be so easy that it will require minds prepared to use it properly.

Gary Saul Morson and Paul Shapiro, professors of the University of Northwestern, report in Cents and Sensibility that the economy tends to forget the effect of culture on decision-making, the utility of history to explain the actions of the people and ethical considerations.

And, in Sensemaking. The Power of Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, consultant Christian Madsbjerg argues that deep knowledge in business also depends not so much on the amount of data available but on the study and interpretation that humans perform.

In an article published in La Vanguardia last July, Frank Ponti, professor at Eada Business School, argued that innovation is more like the work of an anthropologist than that of an engineer. “Innovation does not start with technology, but as a necessity”, said Ponti. After finding the need, we will have to deal with the matter of how satisfying it. Only then technology will begin to play a relevant role”.

Hopefully there was a change in leadership, more focused on the brain and the heart of humanity than preoccupied of the pocket or the ambition of some of its components. At least, it would offer work to humanists, scarcely valued these days.

But there are also sceptical voices. Schaun Wheeler, an American anthropologist and data scientist, sparked a controversy on the net with tweets in which he questioned the value that social science subjects could add to the Artificial Intelligence study plans. Wheeler argued that “students need subjects that provide them with results, not subjects based on acts of faith”.

In any case, the debate should not be limited to questioning who should direct the use of technology but questioning the principles on which it evolves. The market’s principles, solely? Those that care about performance and productivity? Will we continue to control tools in global private companies? What role will the administrations have in increasingly indebted countries? What power will political power has in front of corporations that accumulate unmatched surplus?

If the trend of the last years is maintained, the current values consolidated, and the position of the technological monopolies increase humanists will be practically useless. Perhaps they will be used to make more effective and suggestive the control from those who use technology to increase the disconcert of humanity and to obtain profit.

 You can find more articles like these in the blog  Collateral Bits, leaded by journalist Joan Rosés, an open a space for reflection and analysis of the effects of technology on social life, economy, politics, the individual and ethics. It offers original contributions and selects outstanding works that are published around the world, whether journalistic articles, academic work, interviews, talks or debates.