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Tell us about your book The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World.
The Fuzzy and the Techie is a book about the future of work and why human skills matter in today’s world of big data, artificial intelligence and robotics. It’s a story about how we need to blend human and machine skills, and how – as technology makes inroads into jobs – it’s our soft skills, our creativity, our capacity for empathy and complex problem-solving that differentiates us from machines. As machines get more powerful, we must become more human, not less, to compete. It’s a contrarian book about why this means we need to teach empathy, to teach philosophy, to teach critical thinking, not rote coding skills. It’s an empirical book, but more anthropological, looking at some of today’s best tech founders and how they’re all deeply human. It’s their human skills rather than their technical skills that prepared them best to become successful.
You have had a very exciting and diverse career so far, including roles at Facebook, Google and the White House. What inspired you to write a book at this point in your life?
I wrote the book out of necessity based on a set of observations I had in venture capital. I’d met with thousands of entrepreneurs. The overwhelming narrative I saw in the press was ‘learn to code and be a great entrepreneur’. When I looked around at the founders of Slack, Airbnb, LinkedIn, PayPal, etc. nearly all of them were philosophers or designers. Almost none of them were trained technologists. They were charismatic, flexible thinkers who understood problems. I wanted to write a book that allowed people to see that they have skills very relevant in today’s world, even if they’re not writing code. In fact, they’re likely the ones who should be CEO, or who understand the context for how technology should be applied in today’s world.
Could you tell us a little more about your understanding of the relationship between techies and the fuzzies?
‘Fuzzies’ and ‘Techies’ are lighthearted terms that come from Stanford University in the 1970s. They referred to students in the humanities and social sciences, and students in the sciences or engineering. The argument of the book is that it is not about one or the other. It is not an either–or proposition. The liberal arts actually are about liberating the mind, which is where the phrase comes from in Latin. To free the mind, we expose the mind to a plurality of ideas, math, science, philosophy, logic, biology, etc. The argument is that we’ve come to rely overly on the belief that technology solves all, and that if we just get our kids to learn to code somehow, they’ll have a ticket to the future. The greatest irony is that one of the fastest jobs to automate will be the writing of rote computer code. The job market is moving toward high math, high social skills, high empathy tasks and highly non-routine cognitive tasks. The book is about how to blend Fuzzy and Techie to set ourselves up for flexible skills that remain relevant.
With everything becoming increasingly digital, why did you decide to publish a physical book?
My book is about the importance of analogue and digital, about the importance of timeless study in an era obsessed with the timely. It’s about why the humanities are as relevant today as STEM is. We obsess over the ‘new’ new, that somehow learning to code will be the antidote to the world’s problems. But one of the great ironies is that the things most relevant today are the age-old questions posed by people like Socrates. What does it mean to live an examined life? Technology is only as useful as the problems it solves, and this takes people who study human nature and human societies to understand what the problems are. Writing a physical book is in some ways a metaphor for the very argument I’m making – all of this still matters, and more so today.
How has becoming an author influenced your life and career?
It has certainly meant being on a plane a lot more than I would like. We often idolize or lionize the freewheeling lifestyle of being an author or a thought leader and while it is incredibly rewarding to speak on ideas, it’s also an itinerant lifestyle that is often quite lonely with transactional trips away from family and friends. On the other hand, it has afforded me the chance to hopscotch worlds from technology to education to public policy, which is hugely rewarding for a curious person.
What are your plans and projects moving forwards – can we look forward to another book?
I manage a venture capital firm called Two Culture Capital which invests at the intersection of humans and technology. The name refers to the C.P. Snow ‘Two Cultures’ lecture from 1959 in which he lamented the growing chasm between the sciences and the humanities. Today this divide exists between ethics and artificial intelligence, between code and context. We invest in entrepreneurs all around the world aiming to solve global challenges through technology. In the book world I’m contemplating a few ideas notably around questions I often receive. I’m exploring an idea around holistic human development in the 21st century.
Finally, what are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading an advance copy of my friend Elizabeth Segran’s book coming out in Spring 2020 called The Rocket Years. It’s about how the decisions you make in your twenties have an impact on the trajectory you have. We make decisions in education, career, habits, life and love that create path dependence that is harder to break later in life. It’s a book we all probably should have read ten or twenty years ago, but better late than never I suppose! I’m excited for it to come out next year.