The crossroads of technology and the liberal arts

May 22, 2022

In March of 2011, Steve Jobs gave one of his last addresses at an Apple Special Event. During the event, Jobs spoke about Apple’s unique and deeply inspirational philosophy of combining technology with the liberal arts.

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sync.

There’s no doubt that this mantra is what helped skyrocket Apple to stardom, leaving other tech giants such as Microsoft, IBM, and Samsung in the dust. This ideology is the essence of Apple’s identity, and it should be the driving motivator for all developers and designers. Here’s why…

Humanities, as it sounds and looks, is the study of humans. That includes the art, literature, and culture of humanity as a whole. In the early days of tech and computer engineering, humanity was often overlooked in the architecture of computer systems and designs. Rather than making computers more like humans, our initial approach was to make humans more like computers. To use the computer, you had to be somewhat of a whiz and think the same way a computer thought. Of course, this began to change (much thanks to the like of Steve Jobs and Apple). And once this started to change, the world began adopting computers for everything. Fast-forward to the present, modern operating systems allow a normal person to interact with the computer in an intuitive way that is native to our human operating system. Not everyone can think the same way a computer can think. And, because of that, it is critical that we design and create applications with that in mind.

It has been said that Steve Jobs preferred to hire engineers that had backgrounds beyond just tech. This doesn’t mean someone who has lived and loved computer science their entire life would not make the cut. What it does mean, however, is that a truly great developer or designer should take inspiration from the liberal arts. While technology has drastically changed in the past hundred years with the development of once unfathomable milestones, humans have not really changed. We are still motivated by love, happiness, compassion, greed, sadness, and fear (just to name a few). Technology will continue to change over the next hundred years as well. Humans, however, will not evolve all that much. The humanities are the constant in the equation for groundbreaking innovation. True innovation and discovery happens when we focus on the foundational mechanics of human interaction.

What does this all mean?

For us to become truly great designers and developers, we should focus on developing and designing with humans at the center. Now, I could go off about how we should engineer with our end user in mind. And, I’m sure every product manager on the planet is hoping I go off on that tangent. But, I’m not going to. Rather, I’m going to wrap up my soapbox with one piece of advice. That is, find passion outside of technology. By finding inspiration from the humanities (outside of technology) we can explore more paths that will help us connect humanity. For example, try learning an instrument. Or, write some poetry. Whatever it is, take some time to get in touch with what makes you truly human. And, enjoy it. By so doing, you will slowly find greater inspiration in the design and architecture of your software. And, more importantly, you will find greater purpose and satisfaction.