The Humanities Are Not Dead

In recent years the humanities have been the Phoenix Suns; the Miami Marlins; the Arizona Cardinals; the Theresa May; the Sears, Roebuck, and Company, of the academy.

Science sexy. Technology steamy. Data analysis super hot. Religion, art history, English literature, philosophy, decidedly unsexy.

Partially due to the escalating costs of a university education, “What is the ROI—return on investment?” has replaced universal questions about the purposes of life and a life well lived that are the lifeblood of the humanities.

That is the context in which I read this Kara Swisher New York Times commentary titled “Is This the End of the Age of Apple?

Swisher touches upon Apple’s recent struggles and asks:

“Where is the next great boom of innovation going to come from, when even the strongest brands and products might not be sure things anymore?”

She contends:

“Now all of tech is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health? We are stumbling in the dark.”

She concludes by imploring:

“We need the next wave of innovation, and we need it now.”

Only if we concede to our President that everything is transactional and deem the humanities completely irrelevant, should we conclude we’re stumbling in the dark because a high profile technology company is struggling. As I write, Swisher has inspired 1,105 comments.

Dig the top rated one, as determined by New York Times readers, by “Childofsol” who resides in Alaska:

“No. What we definitely do not need is more technological innovation in the world of things. How about this: What would truly be innovative, is to develop an economy that isn’t based on endless growth and the mindless consumption that endless growth entails. We need to become a country that values its citizens, as evidenced by clean air and water, the right to health care, and the right to retirement security. A culture which reverses its headlong rush into ever-faster everything, and celebrates the art of living in harmony with the environment which supports us. That’s the kind of innovation we could use more of.”

Or the silver medal comment by “Berk” in Northern California:

“’Where is that next spark that will light us all up?’” A fantastic, memorable vacation? A good story? A great meal with friends? A walk in the woods on a crisp fall day? Experiences, not things.”

All of the top rated comments are similar. Clearly, if we can generalize from New York Times readers even a little, there’s serious skepticism about mindless technology. And a longing for some semblance of balance where the humanities rise from the mat before the quants hurriedly count to eight and declare a technical knockout.

That is heartening.

 

 

2118 Thinking

Easter service at Good Shepherd Lutheran brought a surfeit of babies. One particularly endearing one craned her neck to look up at the ceiling lights one minute and head butted her grandpa the next. The red-headed one, sadly, didn’t get quite as much attention as the blonde head butter.

Those babies may live until 2118, which prompted me to think how differently a President might govern, a Congress might legislate, and a Judiciary might rule if they focused their attention on the later years of Good Shepherd’s littlest Easter service congregants.

What if our news cycles were ten years long and all of us adopted 2118 thinking?

We’d reign in our federal debt, we’d conserve natural resources, and we’d focus on reducing global poverty. In contrast, the Associated Press reports, “The Trump administration is expected to announce that it will roll back automobile gas mileage and pollution standards that were a pillar in the Obama administration’s plans to combat climate change.”

Is that what he means by “Make America Great Again”?

 

 

The Lure of Technology

Last week at the U, two adherents of The Maker Movement tried convincing an audience that letting young students create tech-based products is a panacea for improved schooling. Students are making small robots that can bowl they enthused and ties that light up when a room darkens. And someday, they intimated, they’ll build a frig that will notify you or the grocery store when you’re almost out of milk.

Like tele-evangelists, the two speakers said they weren’t advocating for technology for technology’s sake, but that’s exactly what I took away from their altogether uninspiring examples.

Seventy-five percent of what young and old technologists produce is unadulterated gimmickry. Another 24 percent makes life a tad more convenient, which shouldn’t necessarily be mistaken with “better”. When I opened my refrigerator this morning, I saw that I was out of milk. We sold our previous house without photos from overhead.

One percent of technological innovation fundamentally improves the quality of people’s lives. My friend who makes educational apps for autistic children is a one-percenter.

No one has made an app or device that helps me communicate better with my wife. Despite the Maker Movement and related Technological Revolution, I still say and do stupid things that upset her. More generally, where’s the technology that ameliorates gender, racial, political, economic, religious differences? The technology that creates improved interpersonal relationships, and kinder, more caring communities?

I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

 

Apple Watch and iPhones: iNitial Reaction

The Apple Watch. My favorite Apple watcher, John Gruber, said this Benjamin Clymer review of the Apple watch is the best one yet. If Gruber says it, it’s true.

Henry Blodget is smart, that’s why his ignorant comments that the Apple Watch is completely irrelevant shocked me. He’s forgotten history, in particular how unenthused nearly everyone was when the iPhone and iPad were first released.

Having said that, I will not be keeping my word because I will not be buying it this go round. I’ll wait a few iterations. I bought a new watch a year ago. My Garmin Forerunner 10 is one of my favorite possessions. It’s a brilliant watch because it only has the most essential functions I need. Meaning it’s simple to use. And it’s waterproof. And, unless I’m using the GPS feature a lot, the charge lasts several days.

The Apple watch isn’t waterproof. Deal breaker. I do not want to take my watch off every time I hit the pool or bathtub. And allegedly, you have to charge it overnight meaning I wouldn’t be able to use it to wake up. My one-third the cost Forerunner 10 has the perfect alarm—not too grating, but loud enough to always do the trick. No doubt Garmin knows what Blodget seemingly doesn’t, the Watch will get much better pretty quickly and prove brutallly tough competition. I may end up being their last customer. Maybe I should buy an extra “10” or two in case they die a sudden death.

Also, most of the Watch apps will require iPhone tethering. Really, I have to carry a new larger iPhone in order to see fitness data on my Watch? A two-part problem. 1) Getting a comfortable enough, water/sweat proof carrying case so that the phone “disappears” while running. Cyclists will most likely use a case and then just toss it in their back-middle jersey pocket. 2) The additional weight. When you pretend you’re an elite athlete, every gram or ounce counts. :)

I had a great run this morning. It was 52 degrees out and it was pitch black when I left, and 10k later, I was bathed in beautiful morning light. I took three things—shoes, socks, shorts.

The only reason to buy the first Watch is to subject acquaintances, friends, and family to status envy. That is always sufficient motivation for lots of people.

The phones. All previous sales records will be shattered. Sleepless nights for Samsung. Their worst fears are being realized as evidenced by this. I’m holding my AAPL shares and should probably use my Watch savings to buy three and a half more.

I THINK I want one. The pretend elite cyclist in me is thinking 4.7″, but the aging reader is thinking 5.5″. Maybe I’ll take a year to decide.

That collective sigh was my friends who have grown weary of my annoying quirk.

A Peace Corp for Geeks

Call me inconsistent. I’m skeptical of the new national religion, data analysis, but a huge fan of Code for America, a Peace Corp for geeks. Code for America recruits young tech savvy entrepreneurs to improve government. Participants take a year-long leave from their IT positions and earn $35,000, way more than a Peace Corp volunteer, but way less than normal for them.

This ten minute NewsHour segment shows wonderfully diverse, socially aware people with serious technical chops solving real problems like helping homeless people find the services they most need.

A salve for my cynicism. Here’s hoping it achieves Peace Corp-like status some day.

Why I Don’t Own a Cell Phone

Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), is a modern sage. Next fall, my writing students and I will read and discuss Chapter Eight, Always On. Maybe we’ll start with that subtitle. Do we expect more from technology and less from each other? If so, why? Since my first year college students will be card carrying members of the first always on, internet generation, that discussion could fall flat. More how? Less than what?

Dig this excerpt:

These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology. Most of the time, we carry that technology with us. In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption on your screen. In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. . . .

When people have phone conversations in public spaces, their sense of privacy is sustained by the presumption that those around them will treat them not only as anonymous but as if absent. On a recent train trip from Boston to New York, I sat next to a man talking to his girlfriend about his problems. Here is what I learned by trying not to listen: He’s had a recent bout of heavy drinking, and his father is no longer willing to supplement his income. He thinks his girlfriend spends too much money and he dislikes her teenage daughter. Embarrassed, I walked up and down the aisles to find another seat, but the train was full. Resigned, I returned to my seat next to the complainer. There was some comfort in the fact that he was not complaining to me, but I did wish I could disappear. Perhaps there was no need. I was already being treated as though I were not there.

Some people are incredulous when they learn I don’t own a cell phone. My students, last fall, for example. One couldn’t comprehend how I grocery shopped without the ability to call home and double check on what was needed.

Some of my friends would say I don’t have one because I’m a cheap, antisocial bastard. Only partially true, my parents were married when they had me. But those charming attributes aren’t the main reasons. I don’t have one in large part because you haven’t convinced me that your lives are substantially better with them. Convenient at times no doubt, but just as often I hear you lament how dependent upon them you are. At least among middle aged cellphoners there’s a nostalgia for simpler times when people weren’t always accessible, people sometimes made eye contact, and you might meet someone new in public.

Of course, ambivalent cellphoners could turn off their phones on occasion, but that defeats the whole purpose of instantaneous accessibility. Everyone expects you’re all in.

I’m sure my daughters are tired of hearing me say that I’m going to buy the next iPhone. I probably will conform sometime in the future, but I know once I take the plunge, my life will change. Thanks to you, I’m just not convinced it’s for the better.