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Working at the Intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology

Ken Kocienda, author of Creative Selection, imagines the societal impact technology could have on its users, with an emphasis of merging liberal arts into this technology. 

By
Ken Kocienda
creative selection

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad 2 in 2011, he showed a slide of a street sign indicating the intersection of liberal arts and technology. To Steve, working at this meeting point, building humanity into our gadgetry, was the magic in the Apple approach. He said, “Technology alone is not enough.” Design and culture made products understandable, and made using them worthwhile to the people he hoped would buy them.

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I worked as a software developer at Apple for over fifteen years on products like the iPad, as well as for the Macintosh, the Apple Watch and the original iPhone. Yet my only college degree is a Bachelor of Arts in history. I learned to write code after college in a succession of jobs during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. Because of my educational background, I’ve always looked at technology through the lens of the liberal arts. As I see it, liberal arts and technology do more than cross at a single intersection, as Steve Jobs suggested—they weave together in a never-ending thread.

The merging of liberal arts into computing isn’t new. Writing is the first information technology ever developed. It was the invention that turned pre-history into history. In a fascinating parallel, writing (in the form of email) was the first “killer app” of the digital age, back when refrigerator-sized computers where on the cutting edge. The bitmapped display of the Apple Macintosh introduced proportional fonts to computing in 1984—replacing the character mode computers that were then the norm—and brought a graphic design sense to our screens that Gutenberg would recognize.

The liberal arts can help us to determine which path we should take—ethically, morally, socially, economically, environmentally, holistically—to make our technology not just about whipping up yet another cool gadget or social network feature, but by using the perspective of the liberal arts to strive for worthy aims.

In my Apple career, I worked on the original iPhone software development team, and it was my responsibility to make the touchscreen keyboard. I struggled for months to create a system that would allow people to type quickly and accurately on a sheet of glass with tiny keys that offered no tactile feedback.

The main technical challenges were to develop an autocorrection system backed by a software dictionary that could “understand” what you were trying to type even if you didn’t type it correctly. Yet, creating “intelligent” typing technology presents into psychological and cultural questions that don’t have easy answers.

How do you tell what people mean? Is “pill” a sensible autocorrection for “pokl”? What about swear words? Do you let un-family-friendly words stand as typed? If so, should the system ever helpfully autocorrect to foul language? What about hateful language like racial or ethnic slurs? Will people blame Apple for their embarrassing text messages? Can users sue?

Even if it’s possible to answer these questions in software, no such technology is inevitable. While my time at Apple was mostly about making good software for new products, over time, I spent more time thinking how we could work together as designers and engineers inside Apple to make good experiences for people in the world.

We get to decide what high-tech products and features we want in our lives. We should remember that Twitter was invented in 2006 and the iPhone was introduced in 2007. These products didn’t exist within recent memory. They show us the societal impact new technology can have when it becomes popular.

Just because we can develop new technology, it doesn’t mean we should. We should choose wisely, with the help of a well-rounded view that encompasses the liberal arts and technology together. The liberal arts can help us to determine which path we should take—ethically, morally, socially, economically, environmentally, holistically—to make our technology not just about whipping up yet another cool gadget or social network feature, but by using the perspective of the liberal arts to strive for worthy aims. We should come to terms with the idea that the true language of technology is the same language we use for everything else.

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