The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World

Scott Hartley

304 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

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The title of my new book, The Fuzzy and the Techie, refers to the lighthearted framing of “fuzzies” and “techies,” a term they use at Stanford University. Fuzzies refer to those who study the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Techies are those from the engineering or computer sciences. Rather than embrace this faux opposition, The Fuzzy and the Techie looks at how the liberal arts is not mutually exclusive with technical literacy. Instead, for the best products, and in the best companies and classrooms, great innovation comes through the blending and coordination of these two sides. I argue that we need both context and code, data literacy and data science. And as machines take on more routine tasks within our jobs, we need deep-thinking humans in addition to deep-learning AI. —Scott Hartley

Gabo Arora studied philosophy and film at New York University. While he is no technology dystopian, he is concerned about how our always-on devices may be affecting us. He turns his Wi-Fi router off at night to unplug from the barrage of the web. “I feel like it’s doing something bad for my brain,” he says, laughing in self-deprecation, given his line of work. He is a virtual reality (VR) filmmaker, working with the newest breed of technology expected to compete for our attention. “My son is in a Waldorf School. He’s five, and has no idea what an iPad is. I consider that a badge of pride,” Arora says. “But at the same time, I don’t find it to be a contradiction to try to understand how our technology can do good for humanity.” He is a leader in exploring that potential for VR.

Arora is the award-winning creator of the United Nations Virtual Reality film series, and his new company, Lightshed. He has directed half a dozen award-winning VR films, which have graced screens at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival. He’s also shown them to the business and political leaders who gather for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as well as to the United Nations General Assembly. The films are about some of humanity’s gravest recent challenges—the Syrian refugee crisis, Ebola in Liberia, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, pollution in China, Amazon deforestation, the rights of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Arora had never worked with VR film until he met pioneering VR director Chris Milk, who runs a production studio called Within and has now collaborated with Arora on a number of his films. The two met at a party thrown by rock band U2, for which Milk had made music videos, while Arora had worked with the band’s lead singer, Bono, on antipoverty campaigns. Milk has helped Arora to use the power of VR to give viewers an immersive experience that simulates actually traveling to tragedy-stricken locations that they would not otherwise be able to visit, enveloping the viewer in their sights and sounds.

He has introduced viewers to Syrian refugees in Jordan, survivors of Ebola in Liberia, and mothers of sons and daughters lost in Palestine. In Clouds Over Sidra, the VR headset puts you in the middle of a classroom in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, and as you turn around to survey the scene, you might lock eyes with a child who, momentarily, looks up from her notebook. The experience is truly visceral. You are there, just as in the film Waves of Grace you are on the roof of an abandoned hotel in war-torn Monrovia, Liberia, listening to the joyous voice of a woman accompanied by a man playing an olive oil can guitar, looking over at a sunset with the breeze on your face, and feeling admiration for the resilience of this pair of survivors.

Arora’s mission is to instill not only a better understanding about the problems but also empathy for the people enduring them. His official day job is as a senior advisor to the UN secretary-general, making recommendations about which issues the UN should focus on. He never expected to go into humanitarian policy work, but as with so many of the liberal arts graduates we’ve met in earlier chapters, the insights, skills, and concerns he developed through his education have helped him excel in the work. He’s becoming a trailblazer in finding a socially valuable application for a new kind of technology that some tech analysts have viewed with trepidation, if not outright scorn. For example, writing in the New York Times about a new VR headset being developed by Microsoft, the paper’s longtime Media Equation columnist David Carr posited, “The amount of actual, unencumbered reality we experience seems endangered. … What is it about our current reality that is so insufficient that we feel compelled to augment or improve it?”

Arora was inspired to go into humanitarian work after experiencing the horror of the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Center. Having attempted, but failed, to start a career as a feature filmmaker in Hollywood, he returned to his hometown, the New York City borough of Queens. After 9/11, he says he “wanted to help reshape American foreign policy, and America’s image.” He also says, “If 9/11 hadn’t happened, there’s no way I would work at the UN.” He has succeeded in his effort to move people with his films, and they have become a powerful tool in the UN’s fundraising for relief programs. The UN-run UNICEF has shown Arora’s films in forty countries around the world, to both public audiences and to individuals being solicited for large donations, and the films have cut the number of conversations needed to convince a donor to contribute in half. According to UNICEF data, VR has helped double the propensity to donate from one in twelve to roughly one in every six people. It makes outreach twice as effective.

When Arora first pitched virtual reality films to the top brass at the UN, most of them scoffed. With access to headsets being limited, they argued, no one would watch the movies. But Arora stuck to his convictions. He was con dent that VR would be going mainstream, and he thought his films could set an important precedent for using the cinematic technology in meaningful ways, rather than as just a way to escape into fantasies or to experience thrills, like simulations of skydiving or of rollercoaster rides.

While the 9/11 attacks inspired him to pursue humanitarian work, he says his undergraduate training in philosophy instilled in him the belief that his film talents could, and should, be applied to advance the social good. “I am very influenced by the existentialists,” he says, and he’s a particular fan of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. “Paradoxically, while you’d think the message you might learn from them would be ‘life is meaningless, so do nothing,’ for Sartre and Camus, the only way you can develop some sense of inner freedom is through your own volition and your own actions. Sartre was politically engaged, as was Camus.” Arora notes that when Camus asked his teachers what was the best way for him to make a difference in the world, they told him to write novels, which he did to wide acclaim. Arora is also a believer in the power of art to influence minds and change lives. “What I do is not VR,” he says, “it’s storytelling. Novels are great empathy machines. VR now offers the ability to bring telepresence to storytelling,” which makes it more intensely immersive. He is an artist and a philosopher with a deep dedication to the liberal arts mission of enhancing the quality of human life, and he is leading the way in making VR technology serve that purpose.

Virtual reality is one of the technologies, along with machine learning and natural language processing, that has developed rapidly in recent years. The concept dates back at least to 1985 when Jaron Lanier began pioneering the development of the technology at VPL Research. But VR was far from ready for prime time, and it’s taken more than thirty years for commercially viable headsets to be produced. The titans of technology business are competing furiously to become the market leaders. Microsoft is developing a headset it calls HoloLens, which can project holographic images on surfaces, such as a living room wall. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is so impressed by VR’s prospects that in 2014, Facebook purchased device maker Oculus for $2 billion, which got its start on crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Google has invested heavily in the VR startup Magic Leap and made its own foray into creating hardware with its Daydream VR headset.

But in counterpoint to the enthusiasm, VR has drawn fire due to worries that, as David Carr has pondered, it will hook people even further into spending time interacting with technology rather than with friends and family. Some visions of how it might shape our lives in the future are extreme. As writer Monica Kim highlighted in an article in the Atlantic titled “The Good and the Bad of Escaping to Virtual Reality,” futurist Ray Kurzweil imagined that “By the 2030s, virtual reality will be totally realistic and compelling and we will spend most of our time in virtual environments. … We will all become virtual humans.” Though such a result seems highly unlikely, other predictions, and concerns expressed, are more sobering.

In 1992, Donald Norman, the futurist who wrote Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles, wrote about VR as an Event Fanatic of the Future (EFF), who “views the real world through a TV lens … TV goggles are securely strapped to his head, electronics are strapped to his waist, lenses and microphones are mounted on his head … Pity the poor professor lecturing to EFF’s class.” He concludes with the thought-provoking comment, “Maybe the professor is replaced by a computer-generated television image. Artificial images teaching artificial minds.” More recently, Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, has raised concerns about VR. She is the director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self and has spent the past three decades observing how technology impacts the quality of our social lives. She wrote the books Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age to raise the public’s consciousness about how the time we spend online may be diminishing our ability to engage in authentic human connection. She warns that digital communication allows us to air-brush our imperfections, to engage when convenient, and to craft new versions of ourselves, and that ironically it distances us from one another even as we’re spending so much time digitally connecting. She asks, “Are we on a diet of social media that’s hurting face-to-face conversation?”

Turkle challenges the view of Gabo Arora and his filmmaking collaborator Chris Milk that VR is, as Milk said in a 2015 TED Talk, “the ultimate empathy machine” through which “we become more connected, and ultimately, we become more human.” In a speech of her own in San Francisco in 2016 Turkle argued, “In virtual reality, we’re given the idea that we can dispense with the contingencies, the difficulties, the trouble of having to be with each other face to face with all of the imperfection. … It encourages us to … think that we can find empathy without conversation, without being present.”

Speaking specifically about Arora’s film Clouds Over Sidra, and Milk’s TED Talk, in which he showed video footage of suit-clad men sitting in a climate-controlled room in Davos, Switzerland, watching the film through virtual reality goggles, Turkle noted that “these men aren’t cold or tired or hungry. They’re not meeting any refugees.” She makes it clear that she enjoyed the film, but also warns that when “technology goes from better than nothing, to better than something, to better than anything,” we can lose appreciation for the special rewards of face-to-face interaction.

These sharply contrasting views about the value of VR are indicative of the complexity of crafting technology innovations so that they enhance the quality of our lives rather than diminish it. The potential of the new breed of technologies to change our lives is a double-edged sword. While they can be applied to achieve a great deal of good in the world, they also have the potential to cause great harm, or, as with Turkle’s caution about VR, to change our behavior in ways that, if we were more aware of the ensuing changes, we might opt out of. With some of the applications of the new technologies, the potential positives and negatives are more obvious than with others. For example, it’s clear that autonomous-vehicle technology offers the potential to make our roads safer, to free us from the drudgery of long-distance driving trips, and it may also provide more efficient point-to-point transit, which might obviate the need for costly forms of public transportation that place heavy burdens on government coffers. But it’s also clear that it has the potential to cause havoc if vehicles aren’t designed with a deep understanding of the complexities of human behavior.

With VR, the situation is more muddied. Gabo Arora is harnessing the technology to do a great deal of good. At the same time, Sherry Turkle must be applauded for cautioning about the technology’s limits and possible revenge effects. One thing is sure: making the best use of the technology will require more of exactly the kind of creativity, human-centered concern and critical thinking that both Arora and Turkle, with their liberal arts training, are bringing to the task.

From The Fuzzy and the Techie by Scott Hartley. Copyright © 2017 by Scott Hartley. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.