There’s one gadget to make developers instantly smarter and it can be found in your local library

Silicon Valley crowd should read the classics

Stereotype: The HBO TV comedy Silcon Valley lampooned developers

Tommy Collison

A stereotype exists of developers in Silicon Valley. Like all cliches, it unfairly generalises while simultaneously containing some truth.

This stereotype is dressed in a company-branded hoodie, working around the clock on the next great line of code they’re going to write. They work six (or seven) days a week, and don’t think far beyond the next feature, the next launch, or the next “moonshot” idea.

Meet this developer at a party (remember those?) and you’re likely to get a treatise on the benefits of using Node or Java.

Or maybe they’ll tell you about Soylent, the meal-replacement drink that saves them from having to cook. Less time cooking means more time coding. These are the people who think the world can be abstracted down to patterns, programs, and digits.

But imagine that these techies had invented something new.

The latest gizmo? A small device that contains all the collective wisdom of humanity on it. All the things we’ve imagined and invented, all the things we’ve learned about science and the natural world. Having one of these devices would fairly instantly make you smarter, wouldn’t it?

As it turns out, that technology is available today, although these devices are so familiar that we don’t call them devices. They’re available, to quote Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, for $1.50 in late fees at the local public library.

I’m talking about the classic books. These are the books that, spanning almost three centuries, have formed the great conversations of human history. They cover philosophy, science, and history. They are the signposts that we need to navigate the 21st century. And we’re just not taking advantage of them.

Instead, thousands of software engineers go to work every day trying to optimise our lives and our bodies in every conceivable fashion.

We live in the age of apps for tracking our sleep and monitoring our every cough, sneeze, and bathroom break.

People line up every year to get the latest and greatest smart device, enjoying some small upgrade to the camera or the ability to play games in virtual reality.

The world is increasingly moving online, and the software engineers of Silicon Valley are the ones building it. It’s worth stopping and asking ourselves: just what sort of world do we want to have?

Silicon Valley has a famous (and somewhat deserved) reputation for a lack of introspection. That changed slightly after the 2016 election, when tech executives faced hard questions on the impacts of social media. But still, we haven’t had the full reckoning that I think is overdue.

By and large, it’s still full steam ahead on the technology frontier. That’s exactly why I think more engineers, the rank-and-file at these companies, should read more of the classics.

Most of these engineers studied a Stem subject at school, and skipped a more traditional liberal arts education. The classic books, though, can be read outside a university setting.

Dr Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard College for five decades, was known to remark that a five-foot shelf could hold enough books to give “a good substitute for a liberal education”. It’s precisely this type of education that so many in Silicon Valley are missing, and we’re paying for this historical amnesia.

The major reason to read these books is that they are the best collection of humanity’s imagining, investing, and improving that we have. The list covers everything from the essays of Montaigne to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Readers move from Plato to William Harvey’s seminal 1628 book On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals.

Not all the science contained in the classics is correct, but that’s precisely the point: Copernicus got it wrong when he said that the Earth was the centre of the universe. His studies, however, formed the basis of Galileo and Newton’s later work.

Science and technology works best when we make incremental improvements, discovering new truths piece by piece. The alternative, lurching into the future faster than our brains can process the changes, have given rise to many of the problems of the last few years.

This is the second reason I want more people in Silicon Valley to read these books. They should internalise the fact that technological advancement can’t happen blindly. The 2016 election and the Covid-19 pandemic are evidence that we’re sleepwalking into a new world without thinking through the consequences.

It took the 2016 election to force a reckoning on the effects of social media and echo chambers on society and democracy. If you doubt that social media can have negative effects, especially on children, look no further than the many senior tech employees who limit their children’s screen time or don’t allow them to have accounts on social media.

Meanwhile, we have the science to create a vaccine in record time, but not the logistical competence to get shots in arms quickly. The LA Times reported last month that many healthcare workers were refusing to take the vaccine, even when it was available to them. Technological progress needs to be matched with solutions to these sorts of collective problems.

So many Silicon Valley executives have PR advisers; it’s past time they had history advisers. Studying the liberal arts would allow people to see what lies ahead, and to steer the likes of Facebook and Twitter clear of any more rough seas.

Perhaps then we’d truly see technology in the service of humanity.

Tommy Collison is a journalist and an Irish expatriot working at Lambda School, San Francisco