Technology alone isn’t enough


Technology alone isn’t enough, said Steve Jobs. He was right.

This article was written on a PC using Microsoft Word and fact-checked online, drawing information from the internet. It wouldn’t have been possible had Bill Gates and Paul Allen not co-founded Microsoft and Tim Berners-Lee not invented the World Wide Web.

Technology has transformed the world. No wonder everyone from political leaders to parents urges the young to study science and technology. Those are the academic disciplines that help nations progress and provide the best and the most job opportunities in the world today.

Has any other field of study had as much influence on the world? Are innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee rivalled by economists like John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman?

The influence of Keynes

The English economist Keynes criticised the British government’s austerity measures during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He spearheaded a revolution in economic thinking that overturned the then-prevailing idea that free markets would automatically provide full employment. According to Keynesian economics, state intervention is necessary to moderate the booms and busts in economic activity. Keynesian economists would advocate deficit spending on labour-intensive infrastructure projects to stimulate employment and stabilise wages during economic downturns.

In Singapore, we saw state intervention during the 2009 recession when the government announced a $20.5 billion Resilience Package in that year’s budget to help Singaporeans keep their jobs. There might have been no digital revolution had there been no Second World War which triggered massive US government intervention in various fields from the reconstruction of Europe and Japan to science and technology. The precursor to internet was ARPANET which was funded by the US Defence Department. America like Europe felt the influence of Keynes.

Keynesian economics fell out of favour in the 1980s. The American economist Milton Friedman, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976, had a marked influence in the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who were in power throughout the 1980s. They favoured economic liberalisation and privatisation. But the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 required massive state intervention again and led to a resurgence of Keynesian economics.

The reason to recall all this: technology is not the only force shaping the world. The world is shaped by thinkers outside science and technology too.

What world leaders read in college or university

Not every leader of a nation is a science or engineering graduate like Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who studied mathematics and computer science at Cambridge. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel read physics, but none of the other G8 countries’ leaders studied science or technology. The US President Barack Obama read law. So did the French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The British Prime Minister Theresa May read geography at Oxford while Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has degrees in literature and education. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe studied public administration.

Science and technology cannot meet every human need; other kinds of knowhow are needed to understand people and help them. Technology is not an unmixed blessing. While people enjoy better facilities today than, say, 50 years ago, there has also been an increase in economic disparity. Technology has widened the gulf between haves and have-nots: Occupy Wall Street decried the concentration of wealth, Donald Trump appeals to workers who have lost their jobs or feel threatened by immigrants – both the result of globalisation.

Of course, we need science and technology. Leaders and parents are right in encouraging the young to take up science because it will help them get jobs. Someone with a degree in chemistry or electronics engineering is assured of a job in his industry. Reading literature or history, on the other hand, is a shot in the dark with no assured future.

Technology alone isn’t enough: Steve Jobs

But “technology alone is not enough”, said Steve Jobs, insisting that “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” Recalling the calligraphy classes he attended at Reed College, he said: “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”

The arts and social sciences sensitise you to beauty, culture and society, which is why they produce artists, leaders and thinkers.

Those who want education to concentrate on science and technology should remember how rapidly technology changes. Singapore is known for its meritocratic, science-oriented education system. Yet the government now talks of a mismatch between jobs and skills. The government promotes lifelong learning to keep workers employable. Obsolescence is unavoidable in science and technology.

The arts, on the other hand, seem timeless. People still admire the art of Michelangelo, the plays of Shakespeare. Science and technology help us progress, but we need the arts and social sciences to appreciate the world we live in. “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!” says Hamlet. There’s no questioning the ingenuity of man considering all his achievements, but only a poet like Shakespeare could describe his abilities in such memorable words.

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