Damon Horowitz, in-house philosopher and director of engineering at Google, visited campus on Tuesday as part of the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series. Horowitz talked about the intersection of technology and the humanities. Here are some reactions to his presentation.
Human experiences still matter
I'm taking a class on Ulysses by James Joyce this quarter. It might be the hardest class I have taken at Northwestern, not in terms of assignments or grading, but in terms of simply comprehending what we are talking about. Here's a sample from the opening Episode 3, "Proteus": "Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if nomore, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot."
Joyce is making a reference to the Aristotelian philosophy that says that when we look at something, we don't just see the thing, but we also see its meaning and its significance, which are not naturally attached to the thing. If you caught that on your first, second, third, fourth or fifth reading of that passage, you are smarter than me.
As I walked back from Damon Horowitz's speech, I saw a group of theatre students in a circle practicing annunciation through a call-and-response exercise. The phrases I heard them practice were from The Wizard of Oz, ranging from "I'll get you, my pretty," to "I am the great and powerful Wizard of Oz." They imbued the phrases with all kinds of meaning by throwing their voices and placing stresses on particular syllables.
As I continued walking, I heard an a cappella group through the windows of Kresge, reinterpreting a song I did not recognize with the group's own style. I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in months, and we caught up for a few minutes. I waved to someone in my small, discussion-style history course that I've bonded with particularly well through class.
I saw many other things, but these things stuck out to me as significant.
Horowitz spoke about how our language and ideas have meaning that cannot be predicted. As someone who spent the early part of his career working on natural language processing and artificial intelligence, Horowitz became specifically interested in how we can teach computers and machines to understand what we say. Overwhelmingly, he discovered that such a task is impossible. Language and meaning are unpredictable through what he called the "technological world view."
That, then, is the role of the humanities and of the university. The humanities allow us to consider the nuances in language, to grapple with the questions that have gripped human thinkers since the emergence of thought and writing.
When startup leaders and technologists speak about the needlessness of the university and say that you can learn all of the skills you need through online tutorials and MOOCs, I fear they forget about the cognitive abilities that make us human. I would never understand a word of James Joyce without going to a class with 40 other undergraduates and a professor, engaging in lively discussion with my peers and having my own little Joycean epiphanies in every discussion. As a technologist myself, it was refreshing to hear someone at one of the most important technology companies in the world express the opinion that the university matters. Because without this experience at Northwestern, I would not be in the technology world at all.
The university is not just about learning skills. Indeed, perhaps our skill learning can and will move online soon. I am a journalist who programs; I learned almost none of my programming skills from a class at Northwestern. But I wouldn't even know about it without my experience with peers, without the ability to experiment and build here at North by Northwestern, where I now serve as webmaster.
More importantly, I wouldn't have begun to think about the nuances of news judgment and product design, those things that cannot be taught in an online tutorial or through an online course. These things are developed in intimate discussions with professors and peers. And to learn these things, we need to go to school. Technologists or not.
The importance of being human
Damon Horowitz, director of engineering and in-house philosopher at Google, advocated for a wide breadth of experience and education, from technology to the humanities, during his talk at the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series on April 30 in Ryan Auditorium.
Horowitz hit the nail on the head in addressing the question at hand: What is the future of online education and how will it affect the value of a university education? In his speech, with a focus that ranged from natural language, computers, and value measurement, he also addressed larger issues of problems and innovations in the human experience of the world.
Horowitz spoke of what the technological worldview means for education and the humanities, disciplines full of meaning and value. He felt that the pervasion of this technologist worldview, which seeks to reduce problems to simpler and understanding details, attributes a lack of value to things that are beyond measure.
When we look at Northwestern University and the value of that education, we see more than a return on investment or opportunities for jobs. In the value of a university education there is a rich social experience, a chance to mature and grow, and the ability to learn and expand perspectives of the human experience. The traditional university experience is about learning and opportunity, but it is also about so much more.
With the popularity and success of online education, the question is not whether it will arrive, but how what it will teach and how it will be integrated with the current higher education experience. Horowitz feels that it is necessary that technologists as well as academics in various disciplines are the drivers of that movement. Without the humanities, which provide an alternative perspective that focuses on meaning within humanity and the world beyond the measures of statistics, online instruction would advance in a way unfit for a true educational experience.
We can take his arguments and apply them to the problems that confront the world, or to assessing the value of our university experience, but I think that the emphasis on an expansive set of knowledge informs the meaningfulness of our lives. It is with the humanities that we create narratives, use language to express ourselves and communicate with others, and learn from stories or representations of how people shape their lives. With technology, we advance the efficiency of our communications and the scope of the things that we do. Viewed from a lens of a single perspective, our individual lives fail to fully be embodied in the full complexity of the world and our being. If we fully embody the perspective of a technologist, with the attempt to reduce complexities to understanding, then we lose the complete value of a human life. With all of the mysteries of existence, like love and death, one needs philosophy and an admiration for the unknown. Horowitz is both a successful tech entrepreneur and a analytical philosopher, but at his core, he is a humanist, and that pervades his message for the future of education. In essence, learning and gaining different perspectives it what humanizes us and allows us to understand others. Horowitz focused on the importance of various disciplines in education and innovation, but at the heart of his argument was the purpose of knowledge for the recognition of the inherent value of humans and our world.
Glued into technology
I arrived at Tech auditorium for the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series with the items I’m never without in a lecture: my laptop and cellphone.
Like most of my peers, my life on the quarter system is a life of constant motion. Nearly every minute of a day is planned and oftentimes I’m attempting to balance homework and clubs with a social life I’m convinced will maintain my mental health.
So as Damon Horowitz, Google’s in-house philosopher and speaker for the Tuesday event began his lecture, I gave him my ears but saved my eyes for the pixilated screen. There were emails to send and updates to make.
As the lecture passed its introductory stage (I guess Horowitz got his start programming or something) my attention left the digital world and I keyed into reality.
“[We] can’t brainstorm with the computer about creative ideas,” Horowitz said. A computer doesn’t hold up a conversation.
I meditated on that for a moment. Hadn’t I just been corresponding via email? In technical terms though, he’s right. Technology is a platform. Technology is not independent. What is a computer without someone to program it?
“Our machines are made to be clever but they lack common sense,” Horowitz said.
He went on to describe what a purely technical language, perhaps adapted for efficiency, can do to our modes of expression.
“[The] technological mode of thinking has a way of dominating other modes of thinking,” Horowitz said. “If we only look at the world through the lens of technology, there’s much that we’re missing out on.”
Suddenly Horowitz’s lecture, which seemed purely informational and academic in its beginnings, awoke my philosophical self. And I realized: I’m so glued into technology that I can’t attend a lecture without some device that connects to the Internet.
So am I losing myself in this technology-driven world? I once spent a summer’s earnings to purchase a plane ticket and attend a two-week intensive philosophy program. Now, however, hours of time devoted to pure thought seem like a waste when there’s coding to practice or Economics to study. What might become of the curious and romantic ambiguities that define me?
“So easily,” Horowitz said, “we find ourselves saying so little with the power of broadcast.” A computer can sift through words and track its data, but that does not mean it can measure my expression. If a tweet I write gets re-tweeted twice, the system views it as more significant than a thought I had with no re-tweets. Does this make the former thought more significant? Of course not. But in a world of likes, favorites and shares, it’s often technology that dictates how I communicate.
When I reflect on the past 12 hours of my day, I realize that my language differs with every situation I am in. My ability to carry a conversation consistently dictates how a peer, relative or professor evaluates me. But in these conversations I am not the real me. The most genuine version of me is nonverbal. She communicates solely through looks, smiles and sighs in the presence of only those she feels most comfortable with.
I plan on focusing the rest of my career around the Internet and its capability for worldwide communication. After attending the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series though, I find myself wondering what that will mean. Does this proofread and edited article have as much meaning or expression as if I just spoke from the heart with a few complicating “ums" and “likes"?
“Our speech is always an expression of our self,” Horowitz told the audience. “Our self is not a simple thing.”