Published October 11, 2021

by Sylvester Johnson 

This piece was originally published in the Roanoke Times opinion section on Oct. 7, 2021

October is National Arts and Humanities Month (NAHM). Established more than thirty years ago by Americans for the Arts, NAHM is a time for us to critically reflect on the role of the humanities in our society. As a member of the board of directors for our state humanities council, Virginia Humanities, and founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, I often ponder the future of the humanities in higher education. Humanities and liberal arts departments have long been compared to STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) programs and found wanting. Ironically, the rise of technology and the success of STEM education are creating a steep demand for humanist leaders in every sector. 

Not too long ago, no one had ever heard of a chief information officer. Now, a company’s CIO sits alongside the CFO and COO, making high-level business decisions based on computer generated analysis from data sets too large for any human to meaningfully quantify. This data doesn’t just produce strikingly accurate real-world insights, it can also be used to influence human behavior. Such artificial intelligence has changed the behavior of consumers and companies. In a surprisingly short time, technology has reshaped the global economy in much the same way the oil rush of the1860s did. Today, information is the new oil.  

We now realize the seemingly unlimited energy supply the gas and petroleum industry provided came at a high price. What unforeseen consequences await us in this new information economy? Loss of privacy tops the list of growing concerns, but so does growing inequality. Economic growth from technological innovation has already concentrated more wealth in a smaller segment of the population. Economists anticipate this trend will accelerate in the future. Artificial Intelligence (AI) automation, moreover, will continue to replace human labor in different areas of the economy. This doesn’t just apply to low-skill workers. Many upper- and middle-income people might soon find themselves under-employed or jobless as AI begins to do everything from making investment decisions and generating financial insights to writing news articles and assisting drug discovery. We must ask ourselves, “What is the future of work and the future of wealth when data is the new oil?” 

Up to this point, technological innovation has relied mostly on technical skills. Our fraught debates over technology’s impact on society is clear evidence that technical knowledge alone is not enough. We must learn how to govern technology. Today’s most difficult technological problems are not technical. They are human-centered. Solving them will require a deep understanding of how democratic institutions and society as a whole should function. They involve weighing social benefits and costs, developing solutions for security, wealth, and well-being. These challenges are ethical, cultural, and social. They are problems for the humanities.  

Luckily, many educational institutions have already begun to recognize the power of humanities to solve modern problems. The University of Oxford and MIT have already institutionalized technology curricula that foreground humanities and human sciences. Here at Virginia Tech, we’re creating a humanities curriculum that focuses on AI ethics, technology and democracy, and democracy and social justice. Importantly, this curriculum will be available for all kinds of students, from the humanities to computer sciences and engineering.  

Technical knowledge alone cannot solve the problems technology creates. We must build partnerships between the public and private sectors, between the companies that profit from data and the people whose data they trade, between STEM and the humanities. Only by learning to evaluate technical problems through a humanistic framework, using the tools of the humanities, will we be able to solve our most pressing problems.  

This month, in recognition of National Arts and Humanities Month, I encourage you to learn more about the intersection of technology and the humanities. Get to know our state humanities council by visiting VirginiaHumanities.org and learn about the new curriculum being developed at Virginia Tech by visiting https://www.provost.vt.edu/destination_areas/tech-for-humanity.html

Sylvester A. Johnson, the founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, is a nationally recognized humanities scholar specializing in the study of technology, race, religion, and national security. He is a member of Virginia Humanities’ board of directors and is also assistant vice provost for the humanities at Virginia Tech and executive director of the university’s Tech for Humanity initiative.

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