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Silicon Valley Techies Pay Lip Service to the Humanities

May 12, 2011

I spent most of yesterday at a symposium at Stanford University all about career prospects within the tech industry for students graduating with humanities Ph.Ds from American academic institutions.

The organizers invited a lineup of high-powered speakers from silicon valley to address the audience at the Bechtel Conference Center. Luminaries included Marissa Mayer, VP of consumer products for Google, June Cohen, Executive Producer of TED Media, Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist with Sequoia Capital and the CEO of Overstock.com, Patrick Byrne.

There was lots of Stanford brass on the docket too, such as John L Hennessy, the university's president, and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, the institution's chair of graduate studies, comparative literature.

Neither side had much of consequence to say to each other really, despite the fact that the conference organizers must have ransacked every corner of Silicon Valley to find people in top positions at big companies who also happened to have earned Ph.D's in humanities subjects at some point in their fabulous careers.

Throwing words like "empathy", "right brain" and "innovation" around, the techies in the room tried their best to argue a case for why people who've studied 17th century French drama or post-feminist literary theory for six years would make great employees at firms that manufacture semiconductors or sell cut-price designer shoes. But the arguments were basically thin.

The idea that humanities students can inject a spirit of innovation into tech-centric environments is somewhat plausible. But one can also argue easily that adding a person from any contrasting intellectual background to a team where everyone else shares similar skills can help to shake things up. The fact that there are so many arts projects happening these days through collaborations between artists and scientists speaks to this idea in reverse.

It's also telling that even the invited speakers aren't exactly leaping at the chance to hire humanities grads. Patrick Byrne admitted to having just one arts-type person in every team of 10 at Overstock.com (the rest are engineering types etc) and spoke of this "innovation" in hiring as a sort of wild bohemian experiment, rather than something that made sound business sense or could in anyway be construed as a normal practice.

The academics in the room, for their part, mostly looked blank.

It's a lovely idea to think that Silicon Valley could maintain its competitive edge as a leader in innovation by taking advantage of the vast humanities brainpower on its doorstep at Stanford. This first conference on the subject definitely opened up a conversation that hadn't heretofore taken place in any formal sense. But the event ultimately paid more lip service to some theoretical notion of new hiring practices rather than paved the way for anything lasting, tangible and widespread to happen.

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