I listen to Kara Swisher’s Recode Decode podcast religiously. Kara’s prodigious output has a common theme of late: the leaders of big tech companies neglected the humanities as part of their (often truncated) education, and so lack the cognitive understanding and tools to truly contemplate the social, political, and ethical implications of their product choices.
About Mark Zuckerberg:
Was it because he was a computer major who left college early and did not attend enough humanities courses that might have alerted him to the uglier aspects of human nature? Maybe.
Kara is right, of course. Although it’s up for debate as to whether humanities courses could mitigate the relentless moral ambiguity imposed by capitalism (in other words, “values” are simply what command a price). Perhaps that’s the subject of a different post.
The humanities and tech
Let’s assume Kara’s premise is correct (and I believe it is, in part): tech would be far better and more ethical with humanities education infused into product and leadership teams.
If that’s true, content strategists are key to our tech future. I happen to be a content strategist, so I’m biased, but the discipline attracts – at least from my anecdotal experience – people who are steeped in arts and humanities. I studied philosophy and religion as an undergrad, and I’m not alone. I like to think that I bring my educational experience with me to every choice I’ve made since then.
What would it look like if we had more content strategists in leadership roles?
Content strategist at every level
Content strategists can’t be the lone moral voice(s) in an organization, and there are prominent practitioners in other disciplines – such as designer Mike Monteiro – calling for tech workers to question what they’re putting out in the world. From Monteiro’s perspective, if you’re solving problems within a set of constraints, you’re a designer. It’s not a bad way to look at it: most of what we think of as design, development, and content strategy can be summed up as solving problems for users (and/or an organization) in the context of time and resource constraints.
But I believe content strategists often possess unique experience and habits to help guide organizations toward a more responsible tech landscape. Why? Because the content strategists I know:
- are lifelong readers and learners
- have studied the humanities
- are empathic and seek out underrepresented voices
- collaborate with others and lift up team members
- question assumptions and evaluate a variety of potential consequences
- understand the human side of technology
Perhaps that last characteristic is the most important. Why are we building tech products if not to improve the lives of our fellow humans and our communities?
It’s not by accident that one of the leading voices in ethical tech right now is a content strategist, Sara Wachter-Boettcher. The author of Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, Wachter-Boettcher has unveiled some of the darkest aspects of digital products.
We need to do better, and we need more people who can identify problems before they ship.
Hire more content strategists, folks. They just might help you avoid some of the dehumanizing qualities of our current tech scene.