DECEMBER 4 — In recent months, we have heard time and again that the 4.0 tech revolution is here to stay and that Malaysia must be alert, even proactive, in capitalising on this. Ministers heading different ministries have spoken of this need with fervour and determination.
Rightly so, as Malaysia does not want to lack far behind in this spurt towards new technology such as the use of artificial intelligence in many important fields, including the use of sophisticated technology in medical diagnostics.
The Education Ministry has announced the need to relook at the TVET ( Technical and Vocational Education Training ) programme so as to make it more relevant to current innovative industrial demands. But before the wheels churn too fast and far, should we not take 5 to reflect?
With this rush to obey the imperatives of the 4.0 tech revolution, what would happen to the Humanities (History, Literature, Philosophy, etc) and to the related disciplines of Sociology, Anthropology, to name just two disciplines from the Social Sciences? Would they be given much less attention, or worse, sidelined?
For me, who has taught Literature for decades and is still enjoying reading and discussing literary works, such a prospect is both frightening and tragic.
Writing in Hindustani Times (September 16, 2018 ), Vivek Wadhwa, Distiguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and the Carnegie Mellon University in Silicon Valley, reminds us that “tackling today's biggest societal and technological challenges requires the ability to think critically about their human context, which is something that humanities graduates happen to be best trained to do”. It may surprise some of us to know that key figures heading major technological companies are just this kind of Humanities graduates. Jack Ma graduated with a BA in English; YouTube's CEO, Susan Wojciki, majored in Literature and History and Linkedin's founder, Brian Chesky, has an MA in Philosophy. These are the top brass, you may say. But today the Fordist mode of production which prioritises near passive workers on the factory floor, has given way, or , must give way to innovative, exploratory workers at all levels, workers who can think critically, if a company wants to retain a competitive edge.
Some of us may recall, with chuckles, the factory floor worker Charlie Chaplin plays in the silent film, Modern Times. This longsuffering fellow had become so “mechanised” in repetitive tightening of round nuts and bolts that when his shift is over, he cannot help but take out his spanner to “tighten” the round buttons on a lady's blouse! Today, industry wants thinking workers at all levels but will an education merely limited to tech and engineering yield critical and creative thinking? To quote again from Vivek Wadhwa, “An engineering degree is valuable, but the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature, psychology, etc provides a big advantage in design”. In fact, the more sophisticated 4.0 technology becomes, whether in artificial intelligence, advanced sensors, nano-tech and so on, the more people should be trained to think imaginatively, ethically and with an openness to multicultural sensitivities. For centuries, the Humanities have had an excellent track record for teaching such essentials.
Literature contributes to the widening of the imagination as well as the enriching of sensibilities, two areas which any tech designer must surely value. A good novel or short story explores the complexity of human identity. We are all, without exception, coloured by race, religion, culture, gender and sexual preferences. Memorable literary works reveal how these interwoven layers that make up an identity, both challenge and enrich each individual. If you are a tech designer ( whether of the most advanced I Phone or some other hi-tech device ), you had better know how complex and fascinatingly different people are. Statistical data is crucial to market research but it will not tell you enough about the human context. I suppose that before any tech product goes to the engineering department, many meetings on statistics would be held but will statistics alone answer deeper questions about cultural and emotional propensities in a certain market, whether in China, Southeast Asia or elsewhere? Literature and the Humanities will give us the ability to think empathetically, not for Good Samaritan reasons ( no business can be overly generous or compassionate ) but for good economic and business sense. It is certainly not enough to conclude as bluntly as the portentous businessman, Mr Birling, in J.B. Priestley's play, An Inspector Calls did ,that all one needs to do is “to keep costs low and profits high”. One may not get the profits one wants without a certain understanding of how complex human beings are and how crucial some respect for history can be in business.
The study of History, a key Humanities discipline, is not mere excavation of tombs and hieroglyphics ( though we can and have learnt a lot from these over the years ), but it is training in the ability to see how the past, including the recent past, impinges on the present. Surely, any company about to launch into a big tech business in a country would need to hire some experts, who are very knowledgeable about the past of that country, in order to evaluate how these legacies of the past can impinge on the present and even the future. No company can afford to ignore this time trajectory.
Of course, no man or woman has the God-like ability to predict the future but the critical mind which can hold in symbiotic connection past, present and future is essential to many business ventures, technological or otherwise. This kind of reflective critical thinking is best acquired from a Humanities education. Pure tech and business graduates can work together with Humanities graduates to sharpen the competitive edge of a company.
Recently, I have been drawn to the elegant writings of a number of medical specialists. Here I mention only two of them. In The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Dr Siddhartha Muhkerjee, in a riveting book replete with quotes from Shakespeare and other great writers, gives us a humanising, engaging account of the history of cancer treatments. In a touching recall of his own life, titled When Breath Becomes Air, Dr Paul Kalanithi, who himself succumbed to cancer, writes movingly on his experiences with cancer both as doctor and patient as well as husband and new father. Clearly, these two doctor-writers have read widely outside their medical specialisations. No matter how progressively sophisticated and advanced medical technology becomes, a training in empathy, which the Humanities and Arts disciplines encourage, should be a key priority when planning a medical curriculum.
Finally, another significant contribution of Literature is its penetrating ability to warn us of the dangers of unthinking, uncritical worship of technology. We find just such a warning in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or E. M. Foster's short story, “The Machine Stops”. These literary works, and many others like them, reveal the great danger to us all when only a few powerful institutions or companies control key technologies. In Huxley's dystopian vision of a world of advanced technology, all human behaviour is controlled and standardised. Love is frowned upon, sexuality is supervised, even reproduction itself is regulated and mechanised. And in Forster's story, everyone has been lulled into a cocoon-like slumber since all human wants, physical, mental and spiritual, are met by a connection to the ubiquitous, omnipotent Machine. Are these scenarios mere science fiction or, are some aspects ot these alarming developments already here?
No matter how much we may laud the 4.0 tech revolution and yes, it is here to stay and it has its merits, we must remain vigilant about the enduring importance of ethical and moral values which the Humanities and Arts have, for so long, helped us to learn. If we aren't careful, we shall , as Steven Spielberg puts it, allow technology, “to interrupt our ability to have a thought or daydream, to imagine something wonderful because we are too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria to
the office on the cell phone”.
By remaining alert and wakeful, we can explore ways in which technology can partner fruitfully with the Humanities and Arts and so retain our abilty to dream big, to stretch the imagination and, more importantly, to leverage humanising values as we enter new frontiers of science. As the late Steve Jobs stated at the launch of Ipad 2, “It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough – it is technology married with liberal arts married with humanities that makes our hearts sing”.
*Dr Wong Soak Koon is a long time Literature teacher.
**This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.