A Fuzzy is how the Americans at Stanford University describe a student of the humanistic subjects of the humanities. A Techie, on the other hand, is a student who studies engineering and mathematics, physics and chemistry, the so-called “hard sciences”. In the heated discussions about what the economy and businesses need, in order to grow better, public opinion places the emphasis on techies. And in Italy especially, there are many people who complain about the worrying shortages of professionals trained to tackle the new production challenges of the digital world, of that particular dimension of Industry 4.0 which brings together hi tech manufacturing, innovative services big data and the Internet of Things: engineers, precisely – technological experts, IT experts, technical specialists.
The requirements of businesses for a well-qualified workforce open to innovation are certainly well-founded and legitimate: Germans and Americans, the Chinese and Japanese are investing heavily in scientific and technical training and thus have all those techies they need for productivity, competitiveness, and economic growth.
But is that really how things are? Does the challenge of growth, if we truly want it to be “sustainable and balanced”, merely require a plethora of engineers and chemists? And, if we want to look into the matter more closely, what type of engineers and chemists should they be?
In order to find some answers, it is worthwhile looking beyond the usual clichés. And indeed to pause awhile in Stanford, that centre of training excellence in the USA. By picking up a recent book by Scott Hartely: The Fuzzy and the Techie, in fact. Alternatively titled as Why the Liberal Arts will rule the Digital World. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, this is an extremely interesting essay (and was discussed very perspicaciously by a good Italian philosopher, Sebastiano Maffettone, in the “IlSole24Ore” publication of 18th March). For the qualities of its author, first of all: he is not a philosopher nor a man of letters, but a businessman who is an expert in venture capital and innovative start-ups , has spent an intensive work placement with Google and Facebook and possesses a sophisticated technical competence in the world of the new technologies. Hartely’s thesis is clear: big data are nothing if not backed by the human factor, interpreting them and giving them a meaningful structure. We need to add human and humanistic expertise to technology, in order to make it work at its best. And who can do this better than a philosopher, for whom hermeneutics (that is to say, the work of interpreting texts, but also scientific facts) is their daily bread and butter? The algorithms which guide the new machine civilisation must be drafted, modified over time, and interpreted. They need to translate the complexity of elements and behaviours, manage multiple phenomena, and find ways forward through conflicts. The job of a philosopher, precisely. Of someone who understands everything about techniques but who also apprehends and manages their meaning, their locations, and any open questions. And of someone who, specifically in this world marked by technologically highly sophisticated machines, must never forget its humanity and its values. Philosophers and engineers. Or also engineer-philosophers. And poet-engineers. “Study humanities”, then, the Stanford professors advise their students.
Hartely’s message is similar to the call for Renaissance values made by Steve Jobs to American students. And it is indeed in the two words so familiar to Italians – Humanism and Renaissance – that we find the key to a better way of thinking: the Humanists had a complete range of knowledge; they did not separate science from expertise, beauty from mathematics, balanced architectural shapes from town planning, or machines from people. They had a complex and complete set of knowledge, a solid “polytechnical culture”. These are attitudes we need to rediscover. And on which to base a re-launch of “good schooling”.
“Allowing ourselves to be led by artificial intelligence, and by its algorithms, finishes up by turning us into simple machines”, warns Edgar Morin, one of the most important modern philosophers, in his introduction to “Complex thinking” by Mauro Ceruti, Raffaello Cortina Publishers. The enquiry into the direction things are taking and thus into the new phase of high-technology growth itself “requires a pluridisciplinary expertise, which is able to extract, assimilate and integrate areas of knowledge which are still separate, compartmentalised and fragmented. It requires a complex way of thinking, that is to say one which is able to bring together and articulate these areas of knowledge and not simply juxtapose them”.
Technical prowess is not enough, in fact, even for technological growth itself, if such advances are not accompanied by meanings, limits, basic values. If, alongside the “how?”, science and economics do not also ask the questions “why?” and “what for?”.
And from this question too we turn to the value of humanistic expertise, which must be kept very close to competencies.
We will also have this in the best, most productive and competitive companies. “Philosophers within a business make profits surge” was the heading in “Business & Finance”, the weekly economic bulletin of the “la Repubblica” newspaper (23rd April) quoting the English daily paper “The Guardian” and talking about the work of Lou Marinoff, a philosopher corporate advisor for more than twenty years, and of Paolo Cervari, the author, alongside Neri Pollastri, of a successful book, in the context of managerial literature, entitled “The corporate philosopher – philosophical practices for organisations”, published by Apogeo Education. There are crises to be tackled, values which need sharing (responsibility, inclusion, trust, passion, participation), and relationships which need to be interrupted or re-established. And neither managerial practices nor economistic tools can do this; instead, there need to be discussions about the meaning of things which are happening, about community spirit and about the importance of people. And without people who are aware and responsible, there is no business.
This is clearly explained by another corporate philosopher, Roger Steare, a professor at the Cass Business School of City University in London: “People often support the thesis that profit and philosophy are incompatible, but this is a major misunderstanding. The tension in fact is not between philosophy and profit, but between deep wisdom and short-term profit maximisation. What we need to try to create is long-term sustainable value”. An efficient philosophy for good economics and for a business capable of long-term thinking and solid values.