Book Notes on the Fuzzy and the Techie

I just finished Scott Hartley’s new book The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World. It is an inspiring read full of compelling stories and ideas about the rapidly evolving world around us.

The central thesis of the book is that instead pushing every last student to major in a STEM field, we need to recognize that the liberal arts provide a crucial human perspective in a world increasingly governed by machine algorithms.

As a venture capitalist who has served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow (we were part of the same round) and is a term member of the Council of Foreign Affairs, Hartley really covers the gamut in his book. From a founder who taught himself how to code and runs a law enforcement tech company to a charter school teacher using technology in novel ways to improve student outcomes to a military strategist applying human psychology to augment a threat warning system, we meet a cast of characters with degrees in philosophy, economics, political science, and other liberal arts majors, who are building or leveraging technology in important ways.

The end result is an expansive and inspiring look at how technology, when applied with consideration to how human beings think, feel, and behave, can be a powerful force for good. Hartley also takes on topics like the automation of jobs (in his view a smaller threat than many have argued), design ethics (where he largely advances the arguments made folks like Donald Norman and Tristan Harris), and the democratization of technology tools (where he touches on a litany of consumer tech tools and people who’ve used them, including his 71 year old dad!)

A couple other parts of the book I found interesting:

  • The clever and useful SMS-based messaging platform, Remind, that’s used by 35M students, teachers, and parents
  • How Hewlett Foundation used Kaggle, a platform for data science contests, to improve automated scoring of student essays
  • How Stitch Fix‘s founder Katrina Lake built a powerhouse team and a $250M business that uses machine learning to provide fashion recommendations
  • The McKinsey study on what jobs are at risk for automation which counters the larger numbers put up by the Oxford study
  • The task distinctions of routine/non-routine and manual/abstract (analytical vs interpersonal)

My own perspective on all of this is that college majors themselves no longer make sense. Though I hold two STEM degrees (a BS and MS in biology), my major did not grant me access to special knowledge or ability in understanding algorithms or building software. Nor do I think that an Art History or International Relations major has an exclusive claim to the critical “soft skills” that employers desire and that software programs need.

I think we should train / coach students to explicitly develop the knowledge, skills, and perspectives that are needed in the modern world. We need to give every graduate with both a firm understanding of the technologies and systems animate the world around us, and a nuanced appreciation for human needs, desires, biases, and behavior (both individuals and groups).

I’d prefer to see majors go away and instead have every graduate create and present a senior project as their ticket to graduate. My sense is that the institution of college may be too rigid to really embrace this attitude and so the somewhat artificial debate between STEM and Liberal Arts majors will rage on but perhaps a new model of education someday will bring it to light.

Ultimately, I found The Fuzzy and the Techie to be a grand tour of thoughtful people trying to use technology to improve human life. Hartley has seemingly crossed the globe to get first-hand interviews with key players in his book and is just as comfortable explaining international ocean disputes in Asia as he is describing the approach that Google engineers took to program AlphaGo. It will encourage those who might feel that “the tech world” is out of their reach and compiles a wealth of meaningful people, ideas, stories, and statistics for those concerned that our world is being overrun by computers.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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