Liberal Arts in A Digital Age

After thirty-five years in tech and business, I find myself spending most of my time in New England, exposed to an intriguing question not asked very much in Silicon Valley. “What is the role of liberal arts in a digital age?”  With a personal background applying technology to the arts as an electro-acoustician, musician and educator, much of my professional life is and has been spent answering “What is the role of technology and business in the arts?”  My answer to the question was to create multiple technologies and tech businesses almost all designed to lower the overhead associated with creative expression.

Developing capabilities to subordinate technology to serve creative people is time consuming. It took ten years of university to acquire sufficient background to serve on the front lines as a  contributor to the Digital Age. Our digital age can be considered to be an artifact of the democratization of technology.  This age is an economic manifestation of Moore’s Law paraphrased to, “for the last fifty years the cost of semiconductor technology has halved every year”.  Even math people accustomed to exponentials are still surprised at how enormous this growth rate is. Two raised to the fiftieth power is over a thousand trillions or to powerfully illustrate this in terms of money, 1 cent would become 10 Trillion Dollars. This is how calculators become more than super computers.

Computers are a thousand trillion times more accessible today than  they were in 1965 when Gordan Moore stated his law. Billions of people now have a supercomputer or two in their pocket which are far far more powerful than the most powerful devices in the world of a few decades ago. This digital age is not going to end any time soon unless we accidentally wipe humanity out, because people like having this power. Liberal arts communities have overnight become the dominant market segment of the technological age because they now vastly outnumber technical consumers.

This clearly defines at least one very important role of the liberal artist in a digital age, to be the voice of the customer. As liberal artists, are in general much better at communicating with people than engineers are, one extremely important role could be to define what humanity needs and wants, as part of many dialogs with engineering communities who tend to contribute facts pertaining to what is possible, how much will it cost and how long will it take but have less experience in what do nontechnical people need.

Voicing humanities needs is certainly an important enough role for liberal artists to spend some time understanding the frames of mind, of both the technologist and businessperson. There is no reason that poets as masters of succinct communication, can not learn how to write a specification. After all the digital age has turned many musicians into recording engineers and programmers, and many photographers in 3D digital signal processors, and the maker movement is converting the do-it-yourself community into 3d prototyping experts rapidly moving toward small run manufacturing.

It is for this reason I propose that there be courses available to liberal arts communities called  Introduction to Engineering and Entrepreneurial Thought.  Artists, technologists and entrepreneurs all be creative innovators, who differ enough in tool requirements and priorities for sub-optimal new devices to come into being. Systems thinking, project management and complex program collaboration are regularly taught to technical and business majors. The boundary between liberal arts and technology is an artificial one that can easily be traversed through some cross education. Notice I do not say cross training, as training is for animals and robots, not thinking expressive people. Teachable moments regularly occur throughout the entire maker movement gathering steam all over the world. The price of 3D printers is now dropping from hundreds of thousands of dollars to hundreds of dollars. Imagine what will happen when the cost of manufacturing is radically reduced even more than the effects of the low cost of a global labor market. Even more dramatically, imagine the impact of concept to market cycle changing from years to days. Hardware development is entering the rapid iteration the software world has been enjoying for a couple of decades. Once again the economic driving force of democratization will further blur the distinctions between liberal arts, performances arts, and technological arts.

The age of the specialist is less than 200 years old. Before this age, everyone grew their food, shoed their horses, built their houses, and did almost everything needed.  Humanity is on the order of 200,000 years old or a thousand times older than this. There is the tendency to assume the world belongs to the specialists, but I would like to remind all of us that almost all specialists work for generalists.  For better or worse generalists are the decision makers and purse string holders in society. Even those who begin as specialists, as they grow in influence, power and leverage become generalists. Liberal artist education is about how to think about a wide range of topics in order to be better prepared to be in the world. This is as true today in the 21st century as it has ever been and perhaps more so. The more gifted or curious the student, the more important  it is that they are exposed to the ways of thinking of the specialists who are literally defining the world they live in every day, the engineers and entrepreneurs. Engineers create tomorrow and entrepreneurs deliver it to society. Engineers and business people all need to learn to read, write, draw and get along with teams in addition to doing math. In the 21st century the liberal artist needs to know something about the mindset that has created the world they live in.  Just as business and tech people need to know about culture, beauty and the humanities to be fully human.

It is only through collaboration that we will co-create a sustainable and meaningful world. Each of us has to learn to put ourselves in other persons places. It radically improves the ability to communicate and get things done. It will also greatly increases each persons value to the world and to themselves.