I recently attended the 30th anniversary celebration of the Symbolic Systems program at Stanford. Professor Ken Taylor gave an impassioned speech at the end of the day defending and defining the program. His words have stuck with me about why and how the symbolic Systems program matters.
(For those who don’t know the program, it incorporates classes in philosophy, computer science, linguistics, and psychology into one major. You could describe it as learning at the intersection of how people think and how technology thinks.)
His original words were fantastic, I am going to do my best to paraphrase from memory:
Hitler had technologists who could make weapons with technology. Stalin had technologists who understood the science and were some of the best inventors in the world. We aren’t here to train technologists. Knowing how technology works and how to make something isn’t enough. We have to train more than that. We need to train humanists. People who build something that makes lives better. Who understand the humanity and impact of what technology can do and how to build things in the right way. That is why we require courses across disciplines and why everyone should be required to read some of the greatest philosophical arguments alongside lines of code.
His comments have been reminding me how much we miss the impact of what we build, sometimes just because we can build it or the data says so. I am excited about a future where more of our builders are humanists and not just technologists.