Ethan Chiu My personal blog

Importance of Studying Humanities as a Programmer

I think it’s important to study humanities because many programmers don’t understand the ramifications of the technology they create.

For example, Facebook and other social media platforms have such strong algorithms and information tools that basically grant any advertiser to target any demographic they want by gender, age, etc. So, with enough money, any entity can target a certain group of people and change their opinion pretty easily. Thus, platforms like Facebook allow entities to manufacture consent on any group of people if they have enough money.

When I first started learning about computer science, I dreamed about working for the top tech companies because of how cool it was. I just wanted to create the coolest and most advanced technology out there. Little did I understand the great harm some technology like Facebook does to people.

For example, Facebook utilizes machine learning and other optimization tools to basically create an instant gratification cycle which keeps users hooked onto the site as long as possible. As a result, people see content that Facebook’s algorithms deem they will like which sometimes includes misinformation and creates echo chambers. For example, if a user was a troll and loved Donald Trump, he or she might have been shown misinformation like Pizzagate. That person might become so convinced that that information is true that he or she might bring a gun to that pizza place.

Personally speaking, studying courses in the humanities at my community college such as Economics and English classes and doing interdisciplinary research have really changed my mindset as a person and programmer. For example, in my latest English classes, we read literature such as Noam Chomsky’s Media Control and articles like “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright”. Those types of literature woke me up in a sense. Before then, I had attended a lot of hackathons creating a vast array of cool technology with other programmers. What I dreamed of was becoming a software programmer at a big tech company like Facebook. I never thought about the negative effects of those types of technology. All I saw when I dreamed about working for these companies was creating impactful technology that make our world more connective. After reading writings like the ones mentioned above in the past semesters, I’ve realized the importance of truly understanding the consequences and the multifaceted nature of creating novel technologies.

Moreover, studying these types of courses in humanities motivated me to do my own investigation and research. I talked to my cousin who is only 6. Guess what? He plays Minecraft and voice chats with random people daily!!! To me, that’s frightening. While technology like this VoIP seem cool due to its low barrier of entry, accessibility, and freedom from consequences, it also paves an easy way for trolls to bully others like young kids with no consequences. I also talked to a friend who I gamed with and was shock to have heard that he attempted suicide a few years ago at the age of 12. Based on my conversations, it was clear it stemmed from the messages he got on social platforms and the sense of needing to fit in based on the image that social media paints.

Nevertheless, I think platforms like Facebook are realizing the harm they are creating after seeing former executives speak out like Chamath Palihapitiya. Facebook recently announced they are changing the newsfeed to show more friends and family posts, thus creating more meaningful conversations. I’m also happy to see powerful and influential tech moguls such as Elon Musk create initiatives like OpenAI which focus on creating a safe pathway to artificial intelligence. Hopefully, other powerful tech executives follow suit before technology create long term damage.

Thus, I think it’s important that programmers study subjects in the humanities such as psychology, history, and ethics so that they have a strong understanding of what they are creating.