From Google’s “in-house philosopher,” a beautiful credo in defense of studying the humanities

Here at The Teeming Brain I’ve gone on at some length about the disastrous/dystopian trends in contemporary American education, including, especially, the rise of the techno-corporate consumer model that assigns a purely economic raison d’etre to higher education. (See, for example, my “America’s Colleges at a Crossroads” series and additional articles.) Today I’m fascinated, and rather psyched, to discover a smart and forceful statement in favor of pursuing a humanities-oriented education, written by somebody who earned a grad degree at MIT and then launched into a lucrative career in computer programming, only to abandon it a few years later to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy because his technological interests organically led him to a passionate personal focus on philosophical matters.

Damon Horowitz’s bio says he “is currently in-house philosopher at Google” — an intriguing job title if ever I heard one — and his essay published yesterday (July 17) at The Chronicle of Higher Education is described as “an excerpt of a keynote address he gave in the spring at the BiblioTech conference at Stanford University.” A quick Google search reveals that the address itself was titled “Why You Should Quit Your Technology Job and Get a Humanities Ph.D.”

Here are some choice highlights from a highlight-filled essay that’s quotable almost in toto:

I wanted to better understand what it was about how we were defining intelligence that was leading us astray: What were we failing to understand about the nature of thought in our attempts to build thinking machines? And, slowly, I realized that the questions I was asking were philosophical questions — about the nature of thought, the structure of language, the grounds of meaning. So if I really hoped to make major progress in AI, the best place to do this wouldn’t be another AI lab. If I really wanted to build a better thinker, I should go study philosophy.

[…]

In learning the limits of my technologist worldview, I didn’t just get a few handy ideas about how to build better AI systems. My studies opened up a new outlook on the world. I would unapologetically characterize it as a personal intellectual transformation: a renewed appreciation for the elements of life that are not scientifically understood or technologically engineered.

In other words: I became a humanist.

[…]

Maybe you, too, are disposed toward critical thinking. Maybe, despite the comfort and security that your job offers, you, too, have noticed cracks in the technotopian bubble.

Maybe you are worn out by endless marketing platitudes about the endless benefits of your products; and you’re not entirely at ease with your contribution to the broader culture industry. Maybe you are unsatisfied by oversimplifications in the product itself. What exactly is the relationship created by “friending” someone online? How can your online profile capture the full glory of your performance of self? Maybe you are cautious about the impact of technology. You are startled that our social-entertainment Web sites are playing crucial roles in global revolutions. You wonder whether those new tools, like any weapons, can be used for evil as well as good, and you are reluctant to engage in the cultural imperialism that distribution of a technology arguably entails.

[…]

[D]o you really value your mortgage more than the life of the mind? What is the point of a comfortable living if you don’t know what the humanities have taught us about living well? If you already have a job in the technology industry, you are already significantly more wealthy than the vast majority of our planet’s population. You already have enough.

If you are worried about your career, I must tell you that getting a humanities Ph.D. is not only not a danger to your employability, it is quite the opposite. I believe there no surer path to leaping dramatically forward in your career than to earn a Ph.D. in the humanities. Because the thought leaders in our industry are not the ones who plodded dully, step by step, up the career ladder. The leaders are the ones who took chances and developed unique perspectives.

Complete text at The Chronicle‘s site: “From Technologist to Philosopher

What’s more, Horowitz’s speech is on Youtube:

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on July 18, 2011, in Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Thanks for posting this, Matt! I will share with colleagues at SHU.

  2. You’re welcome, Mike! I hope your colleagues like it. Horowitz’s essay is well worth reading and pondering.

  3. Unfortunately I went in the opposite direction – got a degree in anthropology and have been working in IT for the last 30 thirty years – but it’s never too late to go back and I’m working on it.

  4. Best of luck to you, James. How interesting that your anthropology degree and the interest it represents maintain such a hold that you’re actively seeking to transition back to it as a professional focus.

  5. Benjamin David Steele

    Damn, that is interesting! What he was discussing relates directly what we were discussing. I asked whether the info that leads to profit is the same as the info that leads to deep thinking. He seems to be asking the same type of questions and he is asking such questions from within the Google Empire.

    I’m going to share this with Crisp. We have been discussing e-readers in the context of social progress and social problems. I immediately thought of Crisp when I read the following:

    “Maybe you are cautious about the impact of technology. You are startled that our social-entertainment Web sites are playing crucial roles in global revolutions. You wonder whether those new tools, like any weapons, can be used for evil as well as good, and you are reluctant to engage in the cultural imperialism that distribution of a technology arguably entails.”

    • Yes, it’s almost spooky how directly Horowitz’s thoughts play into our conversation. And yes, the fact that he’s asking these things from inside Google is most arresting and impressive.

      I’ve known of Quentin’s interest in these matters for awhile. He always has worthwhile thoughts and impressions, too.

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