The Men Who Did Not Know Too Much

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Contrary to popular opinion, especially in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the technology world and get-rich-quick startups, knowledge and information are not synonymous. Knowledge entails a more comprehensive, deeper understanding learned through in-depth study and practice over time; information, on the other hand, is simply acquired data. Knowledge is to information as an essay in The New Yorker is to news updates on a smart phone or what cities such as New York and Boston are to Silicon Valley.

I imagine gasps and eye rolling.  But I bet that most North Easterners, especially artists and those who have studied the humanities would agree with me. Nor am I suggesting that everyone in New York City is highly cultured and that the denizens of Silicon Valley are a bunch of Philistines. But there is a very different ethos and relationship to learning, the arts and humanities, and mastery in the tech capital of the U.S. than there is in the country’s cultural center, New York.

For better or worse, cities like New York and Boston have more in common with London and Paris than they do with their compatriots in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto. New York intellectuals may be cynical and even pessimistic, but they value the arts and humanities, as well as in-depth knowledge and learning, namely expertise. Conversely, the new world of California values technology, innovation, and youth; it is the land of optimists and a can-do spirit, which is admirable and has made for a vibrant, thriving society, but it also has its shortcomings. This notion of instant success and mastery in Silicon Valley has influenced the many young, practically overnight tech millionaires to believe that they are wise because they made money quickly.  Many of them have not paid their dues and lack experience and knowledge. Despite their degrees from prestigious universities, many are not that well or broadly educated.

There is no doubt that Google has had an enormous impact worldwide on how we acquire information. But because it is based in Mountain View, California and employs thousands of engineers and technology gurus, its effect on the mindset of Silicon Valley is even more profound. There is a pervasive belief that by “Googling” something and then scanning byte or bite sized bits of data, one acquires knowledge. Compounding this misguided view of learning are the software engineers or coders, many of whom lack strong liberal arts educations, who believe themselves to be experts in all things because they are smart, adept, and successful at their jobs in information technology. However, coding is a skill, a relatively new one at that, which does not entail years of scholarship; whereas literature, history, mathematics, and physics are disciplines that have been around for centuries. While it is possible to develop an app of dubious import and make a fortune overnight, it is not possible to earn a PhD or become a physician, that is, an expert in a particular field, without putting in a significant amount of time, study, and practice.

Albert Einstein, a man whom most people would agree was smart and an expert in his field, stated, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”  His assertion perfectly pinpoints the problem and arrogance of Silicon Valley. For true learning is precisely what is not taking place by simply amassing data from Google. And yet, ironically, people in this area believe themselves to be highly knowledgeable precisely because they are not.

My only data to support my assertions is anecdotal evidence, but I have quite a bit of it. I’ve been living in the Valley for eighteen years and have lots of friends and acquaintances who work in tech. My own points of reference are growing up in New York City, studying and working in academia in Boston for many years, earning a PhD in English, and having many academic, artist, and writer friends who have dedicated numerous years of their lives to their crafts and fields of expertise. While I am making generalizations, and there are certainly exceptions to my assertions, there is much truth to my observations.

I will begin with tales of writing and literature, my particular passions and specializations.  In college, graduate school, and in various academic institutions where I taught, mostly in the North East, I have practiced writing and studied literature and have numerous friends and colleagues with advanced degrees in literature and the humanities, and MFAs in writing. Many of these friends and colleagues have become professors, teachers, and professional writers who have labored for years and years to earn their titles. None of them had the hubris to declare themselves experts or artists at the age of twenty-one and before proving themselves and honing their skills.  Also, I cannot think of a single friend from New York or New England who works in tech, business, law, or medicine who would declare herself a literary expert or a writer or artist, including those who are voracious readers and write as part of their jobs. My friends who live in the old world of New York and Boston at least have respect for those with professions in the arts.

However, I cannot say the same of my friends in the Bay Area of California. Here, many seem to believe that merely declaring an interest or avocation, or anointing oneself with a title, makes it so. One friend, a highly intelligent engineer who worked at a large tech company, shortly after meeting me and asking what I did, asserted that she too was a writer. It turns out that she, an enthusiastic and voracious reader of contemporary fiction, occasionally wrote book “reviews” consisting of a few sentences on Amazon or Goodreads. She seemed to make no distinction between the types of reviewing and writing I do and my background in literature and her amateur engagement in both. Her self-confidence and lack of respect and understanding astonished me, especially from someone so sharp.  But I’ve learned that her attitude is not atypical of many a bright spark in Silicon Valley.

Another friend of mine, also a native Northern Californian and Valley denizen, spent years laboring as a management consultant for a large firm. Unlike most of her ilk in Silicon Valley, she had majored in history as an undergraduate, though a good twenty years ago. Seemingly out of the blue, she declared one day that she was a writer and was working on a novel. She then invited a group of friends among them an engineer, two MBAs who worked in marketing, one writer, and me to jointly edit her novel-in-progress on Google Docs. Her mostly inexpert readers provided advice and the author would revise instantly as more ill-advised recommendations poured forth. She accepted most of these contradictory and unprofessional editorial comments equally and revised so much that it was impossible to keep up with the constant online emendations. I gently tried to suggest to the friend that she go about this process differently, including taking a writing class. However, she seemed to prefer the chaotic method of working with neophytes and writing her novel as a sort of group project.  While the friend was earnest about writing, what was striking was that she assumed that she would achieve instant success in much the same way as a group of engineers might brainstorm and work manically for a short period of time and create a fortune-earning app. Writing her novel was an entrepreneurial act. She also appeared to forget that in order to become a successful consultant in the corporate world she had to attend two years of business school and work her way up the corporate ladder putting in long hours, travelling extensively, and often doing unglamorous work. Somehow she did not believe that this standard applied to the arts.

In Silicon Valley even children can be artists and writers.  Another friend, a doctor, with utter seriousness, declared his nine-year old daughter an “artist.” And, he did not mean that his child had an artistic temperament or was artistic. Rather, he believed that because his daughter enjoyed art and appeared to be talented, she, like the prolific Picasso, was a genuine artist. Neither did this physician, who has spent many years in medical school, survived a residency, and practiced medicine for a number of years, have much, if any, background in art or art history and rarely visited a museum and therefore was not a great judge of who is or is not an artist. Nor did he believe that his daughter was likely to become a professional artist when she grew up. After all, it’s unlikely to prove a pragmatic or lucrative profession and why bother, since one can achieve mastery by fourth grade.

Many an engineer in Silicon Valley also seem to believe that knowing a foreign language is analogous to being adept at coding in a computer “language.” Another  software engineer friend told me that he “knew” Hebrew because he took one semester of it in college, suggesting that his fluency in the language was equivalent to mine; whereas I spoke Hebrew at home as a young child and studied it in school from nursery to twelfth grade. While I am certainly proficient in the language, I still do not consider myself truly fluent. This friend also claimed that one could know a language from periodically doing exercises online using Rosetta Stone or Duolingo. He believed that memorizing and practicing a collection of coined phrases so that one could greet people, order food in a restaurant, buy a train ticket, and fill in multiple choice quizzes online equaled speaking a language.

In her memoir, which she composed in Italian, In Other Words, the talented, accomplished, prize-winning English language fiction writer Jhumpa Lahiri explains that even after many years of studying Italian while living in the United States, she lacked true fluency and did not write in Italian until she lived in Italy, where she studied, read, and immersed herself in the language and culture. Lahiri acknowledges that her facility in Italian did not match that of her fluency in English. As a writer and professional who cares deeply about language, Lahiri knows what she does not know and worked intensely to learn and develop her Italian skills. Memorizing some canned phrases or even verb conjugations and a handful of nouns does not equal truly knowing a language.

Notice a pattern? Here in tech land people believe that the arts and humanities can be “mastered” simply because one dabbles in them. They are seen as frivolous avocations that anyone can learn quickly, as opposed to STEM subjects, which are real, fact-based, serious vocations worthy of respect. No one in his right mind would declare himself a doctor because he took biology in college or put a band-aid on his child’s bruised knee.  Though I took BASIC and Pascal in high school many years ago and use a computer every day, I would never call myself an engineer, and while I majored in psychology as an undergraduate, I am not a psychologist and would not open a practice in which I treat patients. So why is it acceptable for someone who has little to no training or experience as a writer or artist or art historian to claim expertise in those areas?

A number of schools in the Bay Area, from elementary to high are training the next generation to become engineers and tech entrepreneurs and perpetuating the belief that the humanities are of minor importance relative to STEM subjects and computer science. In one elementary school, beginning in Kindergarten, students conducted all work via computers and “interfaced” with teachers, many of whom were not trained or experienced educators. A few other schools, including high schools, fuse English and history into interdisciplinary “humanities” courses, teaching a watered down version of both, but designate entire, single-subject courses, not electives, to computer science and coding. These schools no longer house English or history departments, just general humanities. It seems to me that computer science would make more sense as a subset of a math rather than English or history as mere parts of one another.

While some of these schools are highly innovative and provide exciting curricula, they skew too heavily to STEM subjects. Some of these educators seem to have forgotten that they benefitted from well-rounded, in-depth liberal arts educations. Why would they short-change the current generation? None of the schools I have alluded to are trade or technical schools. In contrast, the high schools I have taught at and that friends’ kids attend in the North East still require four years of English, history, a foreign language, as well as math, and science. Foreign language and English have not been replaced with coding. While there are numerous merits to developing interdisciplinary courses that integrate such disciplines as literature and history, treating those subjects as if they are too insignificant to stand on their own, is short-sighted, promotes ignorance, and is cheating kids, who will be future voters, leaders, and decision makers, of fine educations.

When I first moved to Silicon Valley, I experienced culture, or lack of culture shock, despite the fact that it has one of the most well-educated populations in the United States. I’ve learned that the differences between the educational values of places like New York and Boston differ dramatically from those of Palo Alto. Perhaps because the north eastern cities are older, more steeped in European traditions, and are home to some of the oldest universities and cultural institutions in the country, they see the importance of the humanities and realize that knowledge, education, and culture were not created quickly and cannot be rebuilt by Google in a few short years.  And while there are humanists in Silicon Valley, they take a back seat to the engineers who drive the economy and “culture “ of the area.

Google’s well-known, former motto or code of conduct, “Don’t be evil” was dropped a few months ago in part because it set the bar too low for ethical conduct. But the phrase, though clever and memorable is just that; it lacks nuance, meaning, and substance. With shallow education in the humanities, compounded by arrogance of thinking they know everything and are experts in all matters, Google and other self-appointed and self-righteous tech companies are at greater risk of becoming “evil.” Humanities and the arts reflect and express and help us develop as reflective, creative, thoughtful human beings. They can give meaning, shape, and substance to our lives. They enable us to communicate and help us to think deeply and critically. None of this can be learned by googling “humanities,” or “arts.”

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