The role of humanities in a high-tech society

Statistics show that the number of students enrolled in humanities degrees is decreasing every year. Tech gurus such a Nicholas Negroponte, Jaron Lanier or Yuval Noah Harari are raising awareness on the importance of humanities in our modern society.

By Carlos Alonso //

A couple of weeks ago, the Spanish newspaper El Pais1 interviewed Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. During the interview, Negroponte discusses about the latest progress of technology and how they will affect our lives. Lastly, the journalist asks Negroponte about the role of humanities in our “high-tech” society. He answered as follows: Humanities are the most important thing you can study”. However, and contrary to Negroponte’s ideal, the number of humanities students is decreasing every year2. Statistics also show that those enrolled in the branch of humanities, find more obstacles in their search of employment once graduated.

It is doubtless that science and technology have improved our lives. We are better communicated than ever, we have found the cure to potentially deadly diseases and life expectancy has double during the last century. Moreover, we have witnessed the landing on the Moon or the invention of the Internet. But unsurprisingly, the development of science and technology is also triggering new scenarios that put into question concepts such as social behaviour, privacy or sexuality, among others.

Currently, it is frequent to hear about a new medical breakthrough or a new start-up addressing a consumer need , but it is also frequent to hear about a case of personal information used without authorisation. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission have fined the social network Facebook, with an unprecedented $5 billion penalty,  because “Cambridge Analytics, the firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign, harvested millions of its data-base profiles of US voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box”, as reported by The Guardian3.

Fortunately, Negroponte is not alone in his crusade. Tech gurus such as Jaron Lanier4, an American computer philosophy writer and considered one of the founding fathers of virtual reality, claims that a redefinition of the Internet is needed without further delay: “We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by  a third person who wishes to manipulate them”.

In a similar way, Yuval Noah Harari5, author of the popular bestsellers: Sapiens (2014), Homo Deus (2016) and 21 lessons for the 21th century (2018),  points out that “we’re in an unprecedented situation in history in the sense that nobody knows what the basics about how the world will look like in 20 or 30 years. Not just the basics of geopolitics but what the job market would look like, what kind of skills people will need, what family structures will look like, what gender relations will look like”. In view of this situation, the writer asserts that “it’s very important to be aware of the dangerous scenarios of new technologies. The corporations, the engineers, the people in labs naturally focus on the enormous benefits that these technologies might bring us, and it falls to historians, to philosophers and social scientists who think about all of the ways that things could go wrong”.

Technology shall not find any obstacles to its development. But, it seems that we might need to redefine our relationship with it. We need someone with enough authority to help us understand these new scenarios, someone able to provide us with the sufficient knowledge to protect our interests.

It is important to highlight the work of the European Union, and many other institutions, in this area. However, up to this point,  not only a legislative change is required, but also a cultural change.

We must ensure an active participation of humanities students in our society. Aiming at this goal, and addressing challenges accessing graduate level employment and entrepreneurship opportunities,  the Erasmus + KA2 Knowledge Alliances project –Arts and Humanities Entrepreneurship Hubs/AHEH– will create a new European network of academic institutions and inter‐disciplinary businesses that will enable A&H students to share knowledge and overcome challenges associated with being more enterprising.


1. ‘El País’ interviews Nicholas Negroponte: (06/20/2019)

2. ‘La Universidad Española en Cifras 2016-2017’ – CRUE

3. Facebook to be fined $5bn for Cambridge Analytica privacy violations – reports –  The Guardian (07/12/2019)

4.How we need to remake the Internet – Jaron Lanier – TED Talks (05/03/2018)

5. What’s Next for Humanity: Automation, New Morality and a ‘Global Useless Class’ – Yuval Noah Harari – New York Times (03/19/2018)

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