Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Unwinding the STEM - why a career in tech is not my dream for my children

As Infocomm time grows nearer (for my non-professional connections,   Infocomm is the annual tradeshow for professional audiovisual industry) I think back towards a conversation I had at the Women in AV dinner with Kristin Rector of ListenTech. We'd been talking about family and, at the moment, about my then-seven year old daughter (in a development which is both predictable and a complete wonder to me, she's now eight. Parents will understand). Recker asked, as was fitting for the occasion, if I'd encourage her to go into the audiovisual or other technical field.  It's n obvious question with an obvious answer - STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields are, after all, the engine of the modern technology-centric economy. In an increasingly connected and tech-dependent world, we need people who understand science and tech just as much as future generations need to understand the technology which fuels their lives. So my answer was, of course, a completely equivocal "maybe. It depends."

Why? Three thoughts: reflections on what I value, the limits of technology, and the potential of the arts.

The Limits of Technology
I studied computer programming in high school and my early college years. After taking off the training-wheels of BASIC, we learned  FORTRAN and Pascal because those, of course, were the programming tools one needed in a science-based curriculum. I learned to navigate through directory trees in DOS. On the hardware side, I built some terrific High School Science projects utilizing individual logic gates on purpose-built integrated circuits - a toy car that redirects itself after collisions and a digital speech recorder with variable sample rates and playback speeds (the latter of which increased or decreased speed without changing frequency by repeating or cutting some data). Even if I hadn't forgotten more of my early programming than I have of my High School French lessons, these are specific skills which are, at this time,  quite obsolete.  

On a professional level, I had a terrific discussion about this very issue with one of my colleagues at SMW. His contention is that, while it's important for us to understand the capabilities of current technology, our greatest service is in "big picture" conceptual planning. It's nice to know exactly which product goes where, but what we excel at as consultants is creating an overall vision - and that is a much broader less narrowly technical skill.  My early AV education included learning the difference between component, composite, RGBHV, and S-video encoding. Two years ago we all learned about HDBaseT, another technology which is rapidly fading from the heard of AV system design to a side-note.  What is today indispensable will rapidly become legacy knowledge, little of which will be of any use.

Does that mean technology education is useless? Far from it. A solid education with an emphasis on theory and process can be portable, but I find it very easy to lose the forest for the trees. This is especially true for those who see the purpose of education - and this is more prevalent in STEM education - as a road to a better job. We trade the intrinsic reward of self-improvement for the extrinsic reward of a better living through application of new skill-sets. I fear - especially in the "T" and "E" facets of "STEM" - that this puts too much weight on learning to do "stuff", and not enough on understanding ideas and process. If my children are to pursue science or technology careers, I want it to be out of passion for learning how things work, not as some kind of glorified tradeschool.

Yes, we need to learn about technology. But more than that, we need to know how to think - and why.

The Power of the Arts
Two years ago I referenced a discussion I had with SMW's Rob Badenoch about IP-based transport systems. It's an interesting thought worth repeating here:

I'd said that an IP-based system allows us to create a "virtual" matrix to replace a physical one. His answer:
"no. It's not a matrix. It's making video sources available as a tool for a PC or other application. I'm sorry, that might be mere semantics."

A notebook is more valuable than a sliderule
No, it wasn't mere semantics. It was modifying the language used to describe a thing in order to better think about it in different ways. That is one practical value of a liberal arts education - we learn how to think, how to use words to shape our ideas and how to use ideas to shape the world. The ability to think about something in a different way is not only technology-agnostic, but portable to areas beyond technology.

Then, of course, there is the power and beauty in literature and philosophy. The ability to understand other cultures. The context to understand our own culture. Formal structures around which to base ethical discussions on the new quandaries technology brings us. The ability to answer "Why should we...?" as well as "How should we....?"

I've said before that, while it is the rocket scientist who gets us to the moon, it is the poet who gives us the dream of getting there.

My daughter has, as I said above, shown an aptitude for math. She's also shown an aptitude for poetry. Is one MORE worth nurturing than the other? Do we want to live in a world which is all function and no form, all practicality and no beauty? I do not. And I see the creation of beauty, even if for nothing more than its own sake, to be of great value.

What do we Value?
Another online discussion comes to mind. In the wake of baseball's annual celebration of Jackie Robinson, a commenter on New York Mets-related blog Amazin Avenue said this:

(by Ford it was later confirmed that he meant Henry, not Gerald or Betty). Bending AA's "no politics" rule until it nearly snapped, I pointed out that this is an odd, narrow, and parochial view of "most important". One major point is that it included nobody who contributed to culture; no composers, no writers, no thinkers. It also raises the question of what "important" means. Does one have to be nice to be important? One could argue that Mao has deeper footprints in history than many others listed. Yes, Ford changed the world of manufacturing. Did not people like, say, Marcel Duchamp change the direction of culture by making us question what art is? Was Kurt Vonnegut "important"? If you're a certain type of horror fan, can you escape the influence of HP Lovecraft?

In technology fields in general and the AV field in particular we create tools. Tools that can bring people together, that can make the world smaller, that can broadcast numerous visions and ideas to new audiences. Without content and without vision, all of those tools amount to deserted highways and empty containers.

We need more. We need thinkers and dreamers to guide us and to bring value to that which we do.

Would I encourage my children to enter a technology field? Again, perhaps. If for the right reasons.

But if they do, I'd encourage them to study and learn more than technology. I'd encourage them to be human first, and technologists second.

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