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Damon Horowitz Speaks on the Importance of Humanities

Lecture to Northwestern community bridges the gap between technology, humanities

A technological worldview – viewing the world through a digital lens – values measurable outcomes, progress, and efficiency. It is the near opposite of the humanities, which values all the mysteries that make us human: art, history, and language. 

The latest standoff between the two areas is being fought in higher education, specifically in the area of online education, such as online universities, electronic courses, and massive open online courses. It is education viewed through the lens of digital technology – efficient, with measurable outcomes.

But is it the best path forward for universities? That question was asked by Damon Horowitz, director of engineering and in-house philosopher at Google, who spoke to the Northwestern community on April 30 in the Technological Institute. The lecture was part of the Contemporary Thought Speaker Series, which brings leading intellectuals to Northwestern to foster community-wide discussions on important subjects of the day. The series dates back to the 1920s and 1930s and, over the years, has brought Jane Addams, Frank Lloyd Wright, Clarence Darrow, W.E.B. DuBois, Carl Sandburg, Bertrand Russell and other notable figures to campus.

In his position at Google, Horowitz bridges technology and the humanities, but he didn’t always have that point of view. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, Horowitz studied the classics – the early texts that asked questions like, “What is life about?” The problem was, those age-old questions were still relevant, and still unanswered. We, as a society, hadn’t made much progress.

Under pressure from his mother, Horowitz enrolled in a computer science class (where he learned to program computers under the auspices that if all else failed, he could get a job at the phone company). It was then he fell in love with technology, with the intoxicating, magical ability to make an inanimate object follow his every command.

He began studying artificial intelligence – specifically, natural language processing – with the idea that a computer could ultimately help answer the big, philosophical questions of life. Then reality hit.

“Nothing comes close,” he said. Machines can process and mimic language, but they don’t understand it. Machines don’t have cares or values. They don’t have humanity.

He became a serial entrepreneur, starting such businesses as Perspecta, a software company that made visual user-interfaces for large databases, and Aardvark, which developed a social search engine. But the big, philosophical questions Horowitz learned about as an undergraduate still haunted him, so he enrolled in graduate school to study philosophy. He discovered that philosophers in the past had tried to bridge this dichotomy between technology and the humanities. Stanley Cavell, for example, had tried to develop a system for rigorous analysis that could verify the meaningfulness of each statement. With such a measurement, “we could be absolutely certain of all of our knowledge.”

That technological viewpoint – the idea that an aspect of humanity could be measured – is counterintuitive to what it means to be human. It fails to take into consideration values, cares, and mysteries. Those aspects are what give language its meaning.

And yet, such a technological viewpoint is taking over our lives. Our online communication is reduced to buttons, such as “Like” or “Buy.” Our language is beginning to resemble that of computers, and not the other way around. By losing language, we lose our humanity.

That, Horowitz said, is why humanities education is still important and relevant. It’s useful to society for its citizens to know history, diverse experiences, thoughtfulness, and humility. 

Students should still learn how to program computers, he said. That is an essential skill that will ultimate help the University, and society, progress. But students should also study the humanities, he said, so they know “what direction you want to take the University in.”