The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm

Interview with Christian Madsbjerg

Natella Speranskaya: Hello, Christian! At the beginning of your book ‘Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm’, you give an example of an election race situation where a seemingly predictable result suddenly changes due to the emergence of a new candidate. He demonstrates a set of qualities of a real polymath, who you write about as someone who is capable of “weaving together seemingly disparate cultural themes and patterns into a powerful metaphor for the future.” I have noticed that today that the concept of homo universalis, a Renaissance man, is returning into intellectual discourse, and the number of publications about polymaths, generalists, multipotentials rising up recently. It becomes obvious to me that large world corporations are starting to consider employees with holistic thinking as a valuable asset. Christian, how can you comment on this situation, this trend that I’m observing?

Christian Madsbjerg: Yeah, it’s a big, big idea. I think, to start, maybe, we should talk about what came before that. If you look at universities, if you want a career in a university, you have to be specialized in a way that we haven’t seen before. So, if you do a Ph.D. in History, you have to do a little slice of history, that you do a version of, which means you lose the range. I don’t know what it is like in Russia, but where I live, in the US, the people that come out of academia are specialized in details about details. So, we’ve lost people with range. If you look at the business world, you also have a similar situation. Most CEOs come out of the ranks of the CFO, the financial side of the business. They have a highly abstract, very specialized financial view of what running a business is. On that background of extreme specialization, it’s obvious that someone that can have many sides, can look at history in broad terms, or can look at a product, or a company in much broader terms has a huge chance of seeing things that other people might not see. I’ll give an example. In the financial world, the world of investment, it seems like people look at financial decisions from purely mathematical modeling, but someone with a comparative literature background can see that the structure of how financial information, how financial trends form has the structure of stories. But somebody that just studied literature can’t see that in the financial world, so you need somebody who knows both worlds, not just one of them. This is why the most successful finance people have a Humanities background — they studied Philosophy, Comparative Literature, History, Theatre. So, it’s because they have many things they can see rather than just one. The reason why they are successful is that they can see many sides of something, not just one.

N.S.: If I understand you correctly, these are the carriers of wholesome, holistic thinking?

C.M.: Yes.

Christian Madsbjerg SØREN HASSEL

N.S.: Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” A very poetic phrase. It is impossible to deny the fact that in the era of Big Data, when the Natural Sciences dominate and the Humanities are in crisis, we lose all connection with the human factor. I would like to point out that the transformation of the educational system, that is, education going online, contributes a lot to this. What do you think are the main causes of the crisis in the Humanities and what are the ways out of it?

C.M.: There’s something mythical about the ability to build a truth machine. The idea that you can build a machine that…If you feed it data, the truth will come out on the other end in terms of predicting our futures. I think billions, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in this and the results are not impressive yet. There’s a lot that is helpful about statistics. There’s a lot of things that can be improved by having stronger computing power and more data. But thinking that that gives us the truth or can predict the future is philosophically preposterous. So, that’s the first side of it. But the story of the truth machine is so strong that it seems like the whole world is just running in that direction without much critical thinking. So, that’s one side, that’s one of the reasons why Humanities are in trouble, it’s because of the whole world swings in that direction. The other side of it is the Humanities themselves. Humanities have become boring. When you go to a Humanities department in a university, people seem pretty unhappy and angry at the world. I read that an average academic paper in the Humanities in the US has 0.8 readers, on average. Nobody reads Humanities papers. If you ever read one, you would understand why. Because they are written. So, Humanities are in a situation where nobody cares. Because we’re writing in a way, and thinking in a way that is unhappy and angry and poorly communicated, so nobody understands what on earth we’re even talking about. So, if you take the field of Philosophy that I know a little bit about, people study a little slice of some analytical philosopher and nobody is saying what’s going on with ethics or technology. If you’re a Ph.D. in a Philosophy program, you study a tiny topic because you have to specialize but what we need are explainers, people that can explain big changes in society, big topics of ethics and history and world technology.

N.S.: Is there a way out of this crisis? How can the Humanities become less boring?

C.M.: First, I think, a crisis is always a good thing. When you talk to professors at even the best schools in America, they know that it’s not going so well. So, there’s an openness to change. For me, I think, New Humanities should engage with contemporary topics and try to be helpful by applying Humanities to the way we live, the way we make things. So, I think, there’s a space for New Applied Humanities. You can see that in the big companies — they are already hiring people with Philosophy, Anthropology, History background. Some of my students get hired before they finish because they have tools to apply Philosophy or History or Art History. And then, I think, there’s a lot in language. The way people speak or write in Humanities is horrible and we have to change that because nobody understands what on earth we’re saying.

N.S.: You mean dry academic style?

C.M.: Jargon and made-up words. The continental philosophy school has ruined our language. There’re lots of insights, but the way it’s written, it’s horrible.

N.S.: Yes, I wouldn’t argue with this. Christian, when I asked myself the same question about the Humanities crisis, I came to a philosophical answer: the Humanities crisis has something to do with the crisis of the ‘idea of a human’. If we turn to the latest currents in modern thought (speculative realism, object-oriented ontology), we will inevitably see that they position a person on a whole new level, depriving him of the ontological status. They position everything on one line — a toothpick and a Buddhist monk, Hammer and Heidegger are located on the same line. Everything turns into an object. This is the so-called flat ontology, “the democracy of objects.”

These latest thought currents don’t put a human or God in the center of the world, but an object.

The same trend can be found in contemporary art, theatre, painting. Everywhere we look we see an attempt to free ourselves of the human factor. However, if we get rid of a human, what should come in their place? A robot, a cyborg, the Digital Man? We’re constantly being frightened by unemployment, the disappearance of many professions. Immediately new professions and ‘Atlases of New Professions’ appear. People who are afraid to lose their place in this rapidly changing world run to learn new skills, but, unfortunately, these skills need a permanent upgrade. It’s an endless race, which a contemporary human being gets involved in.

This is a problem of our educational system — there is no axis of fundamental knowledge. In my opinion, there should exist an axis of fundamental knowledge, which, in turn, new competencies and skills can be threaded on. The STEM complex, in my view, does not provide this foundation. It must be supplemented with a strong Humanities base. It seems to me that you and I are thinking in the same direction, and, possibly, you could give examples of people with Humanities training who have achieved significant success in business.

Foto: Arthur J. Cammelbeeck/Altinget

C.M.: There are many, many examples. If you look at Bob Iger, who is the CEO of Disney, he’s a very thoughtful businessman but he studied theatre and the history of theatre. So, his base is understanding performance, stories, aesthetic intelligence, and then, on top of that, he’s got finance, mergers, and acquisitions, organizational structures. If you look at the great investors in the financial sector, if you look at the top-top people in the big banks, they all have a liberal arts, humanities background. So, what’s important to them…It’s easy to learn finance, it’s very easy, business school is not hard. Particularly, if you stand on a foundation of understanding people, history, cultures. I think the one thing that I found with the people I’ve worked with is aesthetic intelligence. Understanding the product, the understanding experience is important anywhere. That’s something that can be trained. So, I’m very optimistic when it comes to the future of the Humanities.

N.S.: Christian, if we turn to businessmen with ‘Silicon Valley thinking’, as you call it, the first thing we will notice is their extreme ignorance in cultural issues. Without understanding culture, it is impossible to achieve Sensemaking. As I understand Sensemaking is a fundamental concept for you, which you put as a headline of your book. In unveiling this concept you draw on Aristotle’s doctrine of ‘phronesis’ (φρόνησις), phenomenology and the works of a German philosopher Martin Heidegger, writing that Sensemaking is ‘a form of cultural engagement’. Could you, please, give a little bit more details about this practice. I would like to emphasize the practical aspect of this concept.

C.M.: First, a point on Silicon Valley. I think we’re learning these months what is wrong with the Silicon Valley model. They’re not doing very well. Because the model they have is in intellectual ruins. So, they built Facebook and they built Instagram and they built Google, and they all turned out to have severe consequences for us. So, Silicon Valley is in a different place than when I wrote the book. When I wrote the book, it was on the high of Silicon Valley, right now we’re at low. So, the practical aspect is — define a human phenomenon, extract data, information about that topic and then use that to describe the phenomenon in a rich, thick way, and then say, what does that mean? what should we do or stop doing?

N.S.: Thank you, Christian. I know that you disagree with the idea that we live in an age of unprecedented complexity today, and I fully agree with you. What people call complexity today is simply an increasing flow of unstructured information, that is, Big Data. A contemporary person is required to be able to find the valuable and necessary information in this flow, which will help their comprehensive and harmonious development. Unfortunately, today, few people know how to work with information. I do not mean random consumption or fragmented perception, but a selective approach, the art to separate the thin from the rough, the important from the secondary. In your book, you write that ‘it is impossible to study the world without some sort of paradigm for thinking’. Christian, how can a contemporary person (especially from a generation of millennials) shape this paradigm? How can they overcome the ‘Silicon Valley thinking’, which today equates to the ‘image of thoughts of a successful person’?

C.M.: It’s a big question.

N.S.: Shaping a thought paradigm is a big question?

C.M.: No, no, no. I think we need more sensemaking. I think we need more training on various topics. I think people need to read in many topics. And we need to break the specialization problem. That’s both for work and for life. Life becomes richer and more colorful if you look at many things instead of a few. The little understanding I have about Russia is through poetry, music, novels. I don’t understand it rationally, but I can feel it. So, if you want to work with people from other places, you have to read their stories and listen to their music. Without having that, I don’t think we will be successful. I think, what’s important about Silicon Valley is also…The business model that has worked is about advertising. Google, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp — they’re all about advertising. That’s not, maybe, the only business in the world. There are so many other ways of living and of making a living. So, we can very easily overestimate and import the engineering-Silicon Valley logic, but really it’s just a couple of companies selling advertising. So, I think, if I was 17, I would study abroad, I would study many things, and I would make sure that I wasn’t forced into specialization. And then I would see it as my responsibility to translate it into a product, marketing, organizational structure, policy. Translating it into those worlds is my responsibility. I think range, having range, the intellectual range, is going to be the winning formula.

Foto: Stine Bidstrup/ritzau/Stine Bidstrup

N.S.: Right, but besides the ‘Silicon Valley thinking’, there’s also Design Thinking. It is wrongly connected to the Humanities. Christian, could you, please, name the main shortcomings of Design Thinking, which many tend to overestimate today?

C.M.: I think it’s shallow, superficial. It is not organized, it doesn’t have rigor in the analysis even when the topics are very large. My problem with designers — and I work with them my whole life and I love aesthetics — is that they always start with their own experience rather than trying to understand the experience of everybody. They stay in nice offices in big cities and then they do brainstorming and then they come up with things for the rest of us based on that.

N.S.: Instead of delving into the context.

C.M.: Exactly. So, the context they have is tiny. So, it’s our job to get out of the office and try to understand the experience of other people. And the only way I know to do that is observation. So, the next book that I’m writing is going to be called ‘How to Pay Attention’. It’s about listening and about looking. It is a book about Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French philosopher. It’s about him, and about how perception works. I think it’s one of the most important tools any person, but certainly, a philosopher should have — observation.

N.S.: Christian, today’s attempt to reduce humans to an algorithm is further evidence of a loss of connection to the human factor. XXI century, according to an Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, appears to be an age of the dominance of algorithms. Emotions and sensations are nothing more than biochemical algorithms for data processing. Everything can be computed and calculated. A triumph of ‘The Reign of Quantity’, which a French thinker René Genon wrote about. How do you feel about the idea of Dataism, a new ideology, according to which all creatures are just different data processing systems? This is an idea that Harari promotes.

C.M.: Well, I think, he might not know very much about humans. Computers are indeed better at playing chess than us. But I still play chess. And I enjoy it. If you were a philosopher, you would say, ‘But is it playing chess? Is it playing chess? Or is it just computations?’. Does it care about winning or losing? Is it sad and startled and scared? Maybe it will win if I play against a computer, but it’s not winning as a human experience. And that’s the whole point of chess. So, the computer is very smart and very dumb at the same time. I think, there are a lot of people right now that speculate about the future and that’s a fun exercise, but there’s no basis for these speculations. It’s a science-fiction. And that’s OK. It’s one way of looking at it, but you can look at it in different ways too. Historians of technology will know that this is the fourth time we have had a period where we thought AI would take over everything. Engineers in the 50s said they had a driverless car and the machine would take over from our computational powers. Then in the 70s, then the 80s and then now. Same story. So…Maybe, we should wait with big statements like that.

N.S.: Christian, thank you very much for the interview.

C.M.: Thank you.

Christian Madsbjerg is a founder of ReD Associates, a strategy consulting company based in the human sciences and employing anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers.

Natella Speranskaya is a philosopher, publicist, founder and curator of the Janus Academy. Author of the books “The Way to New Metaphysics”, “Dionysus the Persecuted” as well as several articles on philosophy and culture.



Chief Philosophy Officer (R.University, X10 Academy), Social Entrepreneur, Philosopher, Historian of Ideas, Polymath

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Natella Speranskaya

Chief Philosophy Officer (R.University, X10 Academy), Social Entrepreneur, Philosopher, Historian of Ideas, Polymath