Marrying Technology and Liberal Arts, an interpretation

To talk about “Marring Technology with Liberal Arts” is to suggest that they would be either divorced, or that they would be fundamentally at odds. Exploring the definition of these terms, one can see that Liberal Arts and Technology are part of the same continuum in human condition. So what is behind such a strong motivation, drive, and potent marketing message? These are the questions that I am trying to understand here.

In this discussion, I want to focus on terms and expressions, and not on the persons or organisations that might have been (or are) behind such terms and expressions. My purpose is to explore, get a start towards a better understanding of the subjects covered.

What is Liberal Art?

Google search brings in a summary from Wikipedia as follows:

The liberal arts are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts_education

In ancient times, not everybody was free – you could argue if somehow that isn’t still the case. Anyway. Liberal arts  wasn’t concerned about making tools and the techniques involved. We could dig further into this, but let’s not. Wikipedia goes a little further and defines modern takes of the expression Liberal Arts as follows:

In modern times, liberal arts education is a term that can be interpreted in different ways. It can refer to certain areas of literature, languages, art history, music history, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, and science.[3] It can also refer to studies on a liberal arts degree program. For example, Harvard University offers a Master of Liberal Arts degree, which covers biological and social sciences as well as the humanities.[4] For both interpretations, the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curricula.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts_education

There are certainly many other more authoritative sources for such a definition, I leave that the historians. The above is a good enough excerpt for my purpose. Clearly Liberal Arts covers a very large scope of human knowledge and activity.

What is Technology?

Another Google search quickly yields the following definitions:

  • the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry. “advances in computer technology”
  • machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge.
    “it will reduce the industry’s ability to spend money on new technology”
  • the branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences.

A wikipedia article provides an interesting statement, that points to the earlier uses of the term Technology:

The use of the term “technology” has changed significantly over the last 200 years. Before the 20th century, the term was uncommon in English, and usually referred to the description or study of the useful arts.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology

In this definition, the term “useful arts” comes up. When we talk about use or useful, we are often implying tools and techniques, and technology provides means for us for making tools. Wikipedia defines useful arts as:

Useful art, or useful arts or technics, is concerned with the skills and methods of practical subjects such as manufacture and craftsmanship.

Here we see that technology is more at home with useful arts, than it would be with liberal arts. Mechanisation and automatisation were direct evolution from practices and techniques found in useful arts.

If liberal arts aren’t deemed to be practical, then they must be closer to decorative, entertaining, occupying minds and souls rather than making things for people to use. Liberal Art could be seen as potential uses of things that might be derived from Useful Arts, naturally not limited to such uses. If we keep following this line of thought, then “marrying technology with liberal arts” could be seen as an aim at bringing the practical and impractical closer together. When we say practical, it is often in defence of something that may not be perceived as elegant, intuitive or beautiful. We compromise those traits for usefulness, getting a job done.

Why talk about “marrying technology with liberal arts”?

It is always dangerous to interpret intentions, it is better to explore motivations and interests. From that point of view, one potent motivation could be found in the period in time where the expression initially rose to prominence. There was a time, not long ago, when the people driving technological advances tended to focus more on dehumanising activities in search of increasing financial and material profits. There may even have been geopolitical factors at play, when space exploration and technical ingenuity were being used in chest-beating competition to claim superiority. In such context, the artistic and human sides of Liberal Arts were of less interest because they don’t aim at making things. It goes therefore that the tools and techniques produced by Useful Arts would often be found to be inelegant, unfriendly and ugly. There is certainly plenty of evidence in earlier generations of information technology tools and techniques.

A clear move to humanising what wasn’t, was something for the taking as information technology was rapidly penetrating a widening range of activities in people lives. The emphasis on beauty, elegance, simplicity, all indicate a desire for more artistic expression than actual usefulness. But this could have just as well been marketing gimmick. It wasn’t though, making friendlier, more beautiful tools and techniques actually enhance human experience.

I have only brushed upon some definitions linked with the expression Liberal Art, in an attempt to get back at the origin of the terms and try to understand them a little better. Those advocating the marriage of technology and liberal arts, face numerous challenges and pitfalls. What are these? How can we understand them in the context of current information technology dominance? These topics will be explored in the next installment of this discussion.