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.

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.

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.

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.

Web App Development still mainly reduced to publishing and consuming HTML.

Web standards focus more closely on moving forward publishing concepts, and much less on application foundations. Web as a place for publishing is reductive, in my opinion, it plays up visualisation and plays down other aspects such as exchange, translation, communication. We may still be at the cusp of a revolution that has yet to take its definite shape.

Every week I see some articles discussing web app development, and 99% of those only talk about manipulating HTML. It is as though web applications were only about publishing, whereas the way the web serves people today has largely evolved beyond publishing. As popularity would have it, most people involved in web development, the publishing side of it that is, have no formal background in publishing.

As far as I can see, there are lots of W3C and other open initiatives that strive to move forward web standards. W3C HTML groups seem particularly focused on publishing, as in the modern day version of what used to be print publishing (Gutenberg like). When I see talks about semantic HTML, I only see document oriented standards, but nothing seriously useful from an application architecture perspective. OWL doesn’t appear often in the popular architect and developer forums that I frequently visit, the more I look into OWL, the more it reminds me of the way CORBA went. OASIS is very heavily XML focused, which to me is one extra indirection from the basic concepts we manipulate when discussing applications. I tend to think of OASIS as the corporate web world, large companies trying to find common grounds, a bit less about pure and lean application architecture. I don’t see much else popular W3C efforts pushing application standards forward.

Numerous communities have thrived on the many shortcomings of web app development, and that’s a blessing. On the data presentation side, you have some thriving JavaScript frameworks such as jQuery, Emberjs, Angularjs Backbonejs, D3, and many others. These aren’t standards, but I wonder if W3C should just extend itself an bring in these communities somehow (I’m thinking of HTTP 2.0 for example, the way it relates to Google’s SPDY). Beyond this three’s not much else happening with any significant momentum.

If web browsers are only good at manipulating HTML assets, then it would probably be useful to have a new platform for web powered applications in general with HTML manipulation as just a subset of its functionality. There’s been a couple of products, Flock was one, but they didn’t really catch on. I don’t see much else happening in the way of truly facilitating web-enabled applications. This is leaving the field to only publishing oriented experiences. Ubuntu has taken an interesting approach that, at least fits in the way I’ve long envisioned web powered applications. The Web of Things could have been such next-gen platform, if only it didn’t brand itself as hackers’ and tinkerers’ Toy?

For the time being, only web publishing seem to get most attention, that’s where the money goes. We might as well learn a bit about publishing, the blending of apps thinking and publishing concepts may yield new kind of experiences that would enrich the web.

Semantic dissonance, how Facebook is confusing me more and more

Facebook is starting to confuse me now. Although the word friends doesn’t mean the same on social media as in real life, I can’t figure out how one would mix that with the concept of news in general. Friends are beings that one deem closer to oneself. But news would be exactly the opposite, they often feel distant. So I wonder if Facebook is trying to become more and more like Google, while at the same time actually, Google is trying to become more and more like Facebook.

I was using Facebook app on the iPhone today, trying to leave a message on a friend’s wall but I just had to stop and think for a while. I couldn’t complete this simple routine task because I couldn’t be sure I would be writing on my friend’s wall: the App was prompting me to post what was on my mind. Nothing  new there. But I had ended on that form while reading postings on my friend’s wall, and I just wanted to contribute to that one. But I was not sure anymore if the App was broken, or if whatever I would be writing would appear as a “news item”, instead of a posting on this particular friend’s wall. How did it come to this?

I think Facebook has hit a rock here: I don’t see a semantic match between what is commonly referred to as news, and catching up with news about friends. I do realise that words have elastic meanings on many social media sites these days, the word friend clearly has all sorts of meanings and actually means nothing anymore. But when news about friends get mixed up with general news, then I find it harder to make out what is going on.

I did hear about F8, and all the changes being introduced, and what not. I am used to such big changes on Facebook, actually they seldom move me except when it appears that privacy is being cut further more. This time, I think there’s something wrong with what they are calling things on Facebook. It’s semantically wrong to treat any friend update as a news item. Here are the reasons that I see a semantic dissonance here:

  • Facebook is hosting everything and anything: people, companies, charities, causes, shops, events, games, etc, the list is long. Any snippet of information about any one of these couldn’t be more different than the other.
  • Facebook is streaming all posting to whomever care to listen, read or watch. That’s ok, so long as you know the context the information is broadcast on.
  • Information about one’s friends tend to have more emotional appeal, you relate more strongly to those, you really do care – even if we’re talking about “elastic friendship” sometimes. It is more personal, that’s why you call them friends.
  • However, information about what is going on in the economy, world politics, some technology or scientific matter, have wildly different impact on us. Sometimes it’s infuriating yet you feel powerless about it. Sometimes it’s exhilarating, funny or witty, sometimes exciting, sometimes educational. Whatever feeling this category of news item may cause, it is often with a fair bit of distance and quite impersonal.
  • Here is the issue then: when you are about to post something personal, you don’t want it to be treated as if it were impersonal. That’s a blindspot that Facebook appears to have, it’d be worse if they intentionally did that. Imagine somebody saying: yeah, I am someone who really care, I care about anything and everything, everything is personal. I wonder how you would think about such a person.

I am not the biggest Facebook user out there, my visits to Facebook last on average 2 to 3 min. But when I come to the site I want to get something done quickly and move on – if you’re linked to me on Facebook then you probably know my son features on most of my postings there. For the first time I was hesitating because I couldn’t be sure what the site was trying to tell me.

News about friends is technically called news, but they are special and personal. News about other matters are also news, but they are impersonal, often distant, especially on the emotional side.

So I wonder if Facebook is trying to become more and more like Google, while at the same time actually, Google is trying to become more and more like Facebook. You read all sorts of articles matching those two up in a giant fight, but I think Facebook’s latest move is more confusing than Google’s.