In 2018, the New York Times published an article about humanities disciplines dying out and being replaced by a growing preference for technical knowledge, generally associated with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines. Having recently finished my masters in anthropology — a subdivision of the aforementioned useless humanities — I was worried. Not only are the humanities dying out within traditional academia, but in the general workforce as well. As I scrolled desperately through job boards, companies only seemed interested in technically skilled people, i.e. those who understood coding jargon or how to work with some piece of hardware better than each other.
I felt defeated. What employer would take a chance on someone who spent their university years studying the thoughts of dead, white, French dudes à la Bourdieu or Foucault in an attempt to grasp the phenomenological inner workings of man?
Ironically, the one company who was willing to take a chance on me was a startup co-working space called The Ground in Malmö, a relatively small city in Sweden hailed for big startups like Mapillary and Minut. Working within the startup world was admittedly weird. As support for STEM fields grow at the literal expense of other disciplines, tech represents the “superior” enemy to lowly (read: unemployable) humanities majors like myself.
Yet, my employers at The Ground never made me feel like a pity hire. In fact, they’ve been quick to praise my accomplishments, like carrying the space through an expansion period that saw the tenant size triple and a lot of pushback from tenants over the implementation of structure. What’s better is that they offered council and support rather than reprimanding me when I messed up. The higher-ups at The Ground treated me like a human being — i.e. susceptible to errors or miscalculation but intuitive in a way no computer could ever be. Ultimately, I don’t believe STEM or an AI could have effectively overseen the expansion period. The Ground needed someone who understood people because people inhabited and shaped the space at the end of the day.
And yet, as I prepare to leave this job in September, I can’t help but feel the same despair and defeat I felt two years ago. As I peruse job boards or rack up job rejection emails, the absolute necessity for STEM-based skills in today’s job market is painfully obvious.
There’s plenty of theoretical support for the integration of humanities in tech, like Eric Berridge of Bluewolf’s TED talk “Why tech needs the humanities” or Scientific American’s warning that slashing humanities funding in favor of STEM will hobble the American economy. Just today, Sifted posted an opinion piece about the importance of thinking “ about the people you need, not the roles you want filled” when planning your company’s future. Despite this encouragement (or warning) to leverage the humanities for better-rounded tech, seemingly no one wants to hire a humanities major in 2019.
But, here’s why they should.
There are a lot of startups nowadays. Even in a small town like Malmö, the startup ecosystem is strong, allowing spaces like The Ground to exist in the first place. In this vast startup landscape, there are always those few that really stand out. You know them. They’re the ones that aren’t just good, they’re great.
Simply good startups settle for “good” because they build products just for the sake of it. They have the means or the technical know-how or the ideas to build something new. An example of a just “good” startup was Donna Legal, a longtime resident of The Ground who worked more or less with the same NLP tool (under different company names) that co-founder Rik Nauta described as “technologically interesting but practically useless.” They built the tool simply because they could.
Around the same time that I started at The Ground, Donna Legal managed to pull off something that I believe most startups never achieve. They realized that their technologically-interesting-but-practically-useless tool could be used to actually help people. So, Donna pivoted the company into the legal market (yes, lawyers are people too) and adapted their tool into one that lawyers and paralegals could use to make better legal contracts. No longer was Donna Legal a company that existed simply because they had the tech-savvy to create something new. They were a company that used tech to help real people who were writing legally binding contracts that would affect the lives of other real people. They weren’t just “good anymore, they were “great.”
Donna Legal became a great startup, racking up awards like Nordic Startup Awards’ ‘Best Newcomer-Sweden,’ because they built a product to serve people, rather than corporations or, in what is most often the case, themselves. Great startups’ bottom line is not about making a process more efficient or cost-effective; it’s about serving the needs of real people, who don’t care how cool or innovative the tech is, but, rather, whether it works or not for them. The difference between “good” startups and “great” startups boils down to people.
At the end of the day, STEM education doesn’t provide the type of intuition and training to understand peoples’ needs because people aren’t the focal point of STEM; but, they are in the humanities. Whereas STEM aims to understand and communicate how things function, the humanities provide the tools and insight into why things happen; why people behave the way that they do; why they eat or avoid certain foods; why they consume; why they do or don’t feel the need to buy something; why they will or will not use your product.
The longer I stay in the startup world, the more I question why the majority of startups don’t focus on understanding their end users, who will always be people; why there are no job postings on The Hub for anthropologists or artists or philosophers; why most startups seem more concerned about raising money than figuring out who and how their technology can help.
People-intuitive hires should not be a luxury reserved for mid-sized and large companies. They should be day one employees. Why design a product in the first place without someone to help you understand how the product will work for end-users? What’s the point of securing all that money if you’re not going to use it to do some actual good in the world for people outside of the elitist circle of individuals who started companies because they had the job security to do so?
Perhaps, the humanities are already dead. Perhaps, tech will do a sufficient enough job where we no longer need skills that no AI can ever learn like empathy or kindness or devastation or desperation. Or, perhaps, humanity is screwed at the hands of a STEM-stacked workforce. But, what do I know, I’m only an anthropologist.