Automatons and Entertainers


As the leaves begin to change in the Hudson Valley each year, Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center puts on a fantastic, colorful and current conference, and this year was no exception. The title of this year’s two-day event was Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis. I was not able to see all of the talks, but the sessions I attended failed to disappoint. From Stanford computer scientist and Coursera founder, Andrew Ng speaking about the potential of the MOOC’s to John Seery from Pomona College speaking about the virtues of a liberal arts education, a large range of views were put forward. Check out the conference schedule for the other speakers.

The organizers of this conference go out of their way to invite intellectuals from across the spectrum to share their views: scientists and writers, conservatives and liberals, entrepreneurs and academics. All were invited to share their views about the future of education. But like past meetings with such impressively mixed audiences, many of the messages get lost, attenuated or misconstrued as they travel between the vast intellectual space between the participants.

Having been recently immersed in the two cultures of GT and Bard, I’ve seen some bothersome misconceptions about how the other half lives. Many technologists decry the frivolity of ancient languages and many humanists belittle the engineer’s work to mechanical procedure. Both communities are wrong and both are to blame. Not only about misrepresenting the other’s position, but about also their own. A humanist’s stance of beauty for beauty’s sake undercuts their utility and a scientist’s reductionist outlook logically leads to their own imminent automation. But of course, neither is true.

The modern age has made this gulf worse. Computers — those soul-less machines — can help anyone calculate. And computers — those brain-less machines — can help anyone publish a short story or a film. Neither is special; both communities are automatons; profit-driven mind-less automatons.

Here is my bottom line:

If the arts and humanities are not useful and rigorous; you are doing it wrong. If the STEM disciplines are not beautiful and creative; you are doing it wrong. “It” is the same “it”.

Math isn’t mechanical. Writing isn’t frivolous. Both are hard to do well.

An Aside; A Pet Peeve

One oft-cited axiom in the MOOC debate is that Math and CS are easier to MOOC-itize than other fields. This is one fact that crosses the intellectual aisle. MOOC-leaning scientists and anti-MOOC humanists both take for granted that the teaching of math and programming should be the first to be automated. As you might have guessed, I whole-heartedly disagree. If you can’t automate the teaching of writing you can’t automate the teaching of math. You can automate multiplication drills, but you can also automate spelling drills. Humanists don’t consider spelling writing, Mathematicians don’t consider multiplying math. And for the record, computer scientists don’t consider programming language syntax computer science. Spelling is necessary to write. Multiplication is necessary to do math. Writing grammatically correct programs is necessary to study algorithms. But those aren’t the interesting parts of those disciplines, for exactly that reason, they can be automated. Academics are concerned with new knowledge, and that necessarily lives on the boundary of what is known and what is unknown. And if we can automate something, we know it very well.

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