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Humanities x Technology

What does it mean for the industry to approach technology with a humanities approach? Companies are beginning to learn that users care more about how they can use a product, rather than its technical specifications. Dropbox’s Ashley Nelson-Hornstein passionately explains how this marriage of sciences and humanities creates truly beautiful experiences, from video games to learning platforms.


Introduction (0:00)

I’m going to talk about this idea of the intersection between humanities and technology. But before I get started, I wanted to talk about something I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit. It’s the fact that ever since I moved to Apple’s platform after college, I realized that I don’t know a single technical specification of any of my devices. I’m lucky if I know the capacity of my iPhone or iPad, but I certainly don’t know how much memory is in my iPad mini 2, or what the clock speed is of this Retina Macbook Pro that I’m using. That’s weird for me.

I’m a technical person; I’m a programmer by trade. My family has zero problems asking me every single question they can, or asking me to build them an app. In high school, I used to build gaming PCs. I read Maximum PC cover to cover. I knew the clock speed of Intel’s entire lineup, or the transistors on my graphics card.

What happened? Why has Apple gotten me comfortable with the idea that every year they’re going to release a new version of the product that I love, that is going to be twice as fast, and half the size? Why am I okay with being just a bit hardware dumb?

Commercials (1:20)

I started thinking about the medium that Apple uses to communicate with its customers, or its potential customers. That’s through commercials. So really, it’s Apple’s fault that I don’t know this stuff. Their commercials are much more about the experience of using the product. It goes back to the idea of speeds and feeds, and the fact that there was no longer a need to compete on technical merit. It was all about the quality of the user’s experience. As a result, their commercials are much more experiential and about how you can integrate an iPhone or iPod into your everyday life.

Apple (2:15)

Most of the time, their commercials are better than the industry. Not every commercial is great, but more often than not, the coolness of their technology is evaluated in what you can do with the product. How could it be integrated into my everyday life? I can’t think of a better example of this than Apple’s “misunderstood” ad from a few years ago.

In this commercial, there is a young teenage boy on holiday vacation with his family. He spends the entire time buried in his iPhone, and he looks like the typical aloof teenager who would rather be anywhere but here. You almost want to smack the kid and tell him, “Hey, pay attention! These are the moments you’re going to wish you didn’t miss, that you should be cherishing.” But instead, he’s buried in his phone. At the end of the commercial, it’s revealed that he’s been buried in this phone putting together this beautiful video montage of his family’s greatest moments from the vacation. His family starts crying when they see the video, and he starts crying.

This commercial works. I certainly couldn’t wait to pick up my iPhone and record my family doing anything, and everything. But there is zero mention of any technical specifications in this entire commercial. You don’t know what megapixel camera he used to shoot the video. You don’t know how many photos or videos could be stored on his iPhone. You don’t even know what app he used to create the video. None of that matters.

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Android (3:49)

Compare this with your typical Android commercial. Remember this absurd commercial from a few years ago? What has any of this got to do with what using a phone is like? It seems more like a trailer for the new Terminator movie that’s coming out than it does a commercial for a phone. It’s one of the most technology for technology’s sake productions I think I could possibly imagine. In watching this and then watching the “misunderstood” ad, going back and forth, why am I so much more excited to see an Apple advertisement? When I see the silhouette of a person, why do I get excited because I realize that an iPod commercial is about to come on?

Liberal Arts and Technology (4:35)

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it goes back to the intersection between liberal arts and technology. We’ve all seen this moment and heard the words that accompany it. It’s seen as Jobs’ legacy to Apple, and the fact that Apple creates the user experience before it creates the technology. They don’t try to shoehorn technology into a user experience. As a result, their products are much more engaging.

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology, married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”
Steve Jobs

This is a beautiful quote. Who doesn’t want to make products and experiences that make other people’s hearts sing? I certainly strive to do that, and I’m sure you do as well. We’ve seen that Apple embodies this quote, but what does it mean to apply these thoughts practically, and particularly if you’re not within Apple?

Dr. Edwin Land (6:04)

I want to spend some time digging into. I want to talk about real-world, modern, practical examples of this intersection between humanities and technology. I think it’s best to start with where Jobs got the idea of this intersection: from his hero, Dr. Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid and the inventor of instant photography.

Land wholeheartedly believed in this intersection between arts and sciences. He saw photography as existing at this intersection. Dr. Land would hire the smartest art history majors he could, and he would send them off for a few science classes. He was literally creating people that stood at this very intersection throughout his company. This idea of intersection didn’t start with Dr. Land. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci was both an artist and a scientist, because in his day, there was no distinction. But let’s return to Dr. Land.

What made Dr. Land great was that he understood that people didn’t need to understand how a product worked in order to enjoy and appreciate using the product. He used that knowledge to create the SX-70 camera. It’s probably his finest achievement. The SX-70 didn’t usher in instant photography. Dr. Land had done that 30 years prior, but what it did was make it easy for the average person to create a memory instantly.

You didn’t have to worry about chemicals getting on your hands and possibly burning them. You didn’t have deal with gunky paper, or worry about whether or not you had enough battery to take all the photos you wanted to take, because the battery was built into the film. It had everything you needed, with just a few simple controls. There was a scroll wheel to focus the shot, and a shutter button to take the photo. That was it.

Now naturally, hiding all of this user facing complexity meant there was a ton of complexity inside of the camera. Does this sound familiar to anyone? It feels like all we do as developers and designers is strive to create these interfaces that are simple and easy to use. We’ll spend weeks working on an entire workflow that’s hidden behind a single button. We pray that when we introduce that button, it will provide a seamless experience for users.

Dr. Land was doing this in the 1970s. He understood that if you took away the complexity of the act of actually taking a photo, then people could focus on the art of photography. He didn’t just want to sell cameras; he wanted to fundamentally change the way that people interacted, and he succeeded. He delighted in seeing people want to jump in group shots with each other, take photos, and then share them with each other.

Never Alone (8:53)

I’d like to jump again to a more modern representation of this intersection. The video game “Never Alone” is one of the finest examples we have of what happens when technology leverages the insights of the humanities. This game was created in partnership between the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, which is a foundation that supports the Alaskan native people, and E-Line Media, a publisher of educational entertainment.

The Alaskan native people were looking for a modern way to share their language and culture with the world. They wanted to do it in a way that leveraged technology and media, and so they partnered with E-Line Media to produce this phenomenal game. In it, you play as Nuna, a young Iñupiaq girl, and her arctic fox as they set out to find the source of the eternal blizzard in order to return harmony back to the world. This game was created over a two year period, with nearly 40 Iñupiaq elders, storytellers, and community members, all contributing directly to the game. But this wasn’t a one-off contribution — it’s not like the community members came in for a luncheon, and then they left, and the game developers went off and created this great game. No, the community members had real input into every stage of the process, from game development to marketing.

It’s kind of amazing that this game works at all, and that it succeeds to be something that’s both fun and culturally engaging. Plenty of games like this exist at this intersection between being educational and being fun, but they suck really bad at being fun games. Games like this are too hard to make. You have to do what I see as getting three things right, all while walking this fine line. You need to have a great story to tell and fantastic content, you need to have great artistry, and then you need to have a technical team that’s capable of executing on your concept.

This should have failed, but instead, the game developers worked really hard. They worked really hard to make sure that everything that was added to the game was there because it was inspired by the culture. You know, the Iñupiaq believe that man and nature are equal. And so, a lot of the obstacles that Nuna and the fox face aren’t intentionally trying to bring them harm, but is simple nature just existing. Every reward you receive is put there with real intentionality and purpose.

This could have been a documentary. In fact, you can unlock little video-like clips within the game, that explain the back story of some of the rewards and concepts. But if it had been a documentary, it wouldn’t have reached the audience that it was able to reach. At a time when the Alaskan native people believed that the children are being pulled away from their culture and language by video games and technology, they used that same medium to reconnect back to them.

Depression Quest (12:05)

This is a game named “Depression Quest”, and it was released in 2013 by Zoe Quinn. The game has you play from the perspective of someone suffering from depression as they navigate a series of everyday life events, all while managing their illness and their relationships. In the game, scenarios are presented to you, and you have to choose how to respond to them.

One interesting feature of the game is that as you progress, and as your depression worsens, options that would actually be really helpful to you in managing your illness, are crossed out and unavailable. This represents the toll that depression can take on your energy. Now, this game isn’t fun. Your typical health bar, or energy bar, is instead replaced by a description of what medication you’re on, whether or not you’re seeing a therapist, and what your mood is like that day.

But, this game presents an interesting example of using technology to illustrate what suffering from an illness is like. It was created with a specific audience in mind. Quinn herself suffers from depression, and she wanted to create a safe space for those also dealing with the illness, to explore the ramifications of it. It’s had another positive side effect as well, because therapists are using the game to build empathy and understanding with loved ones.

This game is nothing fancy, technically speaking. It’s written in HTML5. Quinn uses a static grey background and haunting, almost glitchy music to just get you in the headspace of the illness. All that doesn’t matter. And, by making the game free and available on the web, Quinn has ensured that it’s able to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Twitter (13:55)

Speaking of the idea of using the web as a medium for this intersection, let’s talk about Twitter. Twitter is a powerful platform. Early adopters of it were part of the technology elite, while pretty much everyone after is far more interested in participating in the public discourse than they are in the technology of the platform. As a result, there’s this constant juxtaposition on Twitter between humanities and technology.

Twitter has ushered in hashtag activism. It has made human rights violations that are far away, instead feel very real and close to home. Issues like Arab Spring, Ferguson, Bring Back Our Girls, and everyday sexism, have trended worldwide, received mainstream media attention, and official responses from companies and governments.

There’s something extremely powerful in seeing hundreds of thousands of people tweet, galvanize, and support an issue. It brings real awareness, and there’s power in that. But that same power can be used negatively, and so Twitter is also a dangerous place. Stalkers and harassers run rampant on the platform, and they post vile tweets to anyone they deem unworthy of having a voice. Twitter has been irresponsibly slow in protecting it’s users from online abuse. The recently resigned CEO of Twitter, said in an internal email:

“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform, and we’ve sucked at it for years.”

He was right. Twitter continues to suck at this problem. Twitter has an obligation to its users to not lose track of the humanity, simply because this is a technically difficult problem to solve.

Buzzfeed Reviews the Apple Watch (15:43)

I’d like to talk about another example of this intersection, in a place that was a little surprising to where I saw it pop up. That was in gadget reviews. After the most recent Apple Watch event, Buzzfeed sent two of their journalists to record trying on and using the watch for the first time. What they produced is a video review that talks about their first impressions of using the watch. By all accounts, this is a really successful gadget review video.

What’s funny is that not a single technical specification is mentioned in the entire video. Instead, what you get is tons of emotion. You get lots of personality. The women talk about the experience of trying on the watch and how it just feels natural. They talk about how they feel like a Power Ranger while wearing the watch. This video review is focused similarly to Apple’s own Keynote, which didn’t focus on the digital crown.

It talked about what it was like to run a marathon while wearing the watch. It’s really a great example of this intersection, and I think it’s representative of gadget reviews evolving to be how video game reviews have always been, which is focused on the experience of using the product and what that means to you. Moving forward, the demand for reviews like this, that simply talk about whether or not a product is even worth investing your time in, will only grow.

Pixar (17:21)

Speaking of the idea of using technology to evoke emotion, I can’t think of a better place that does this than Pixar. Pixar is the company that produces the most technologically advanced animations on Earth that make you want to cry. Seriously, I think that’s their entire business plan. I couldn’t wait to see Toy Story 3, and then I burst into tears by the end of it.

How may of you have seen the first 10 minutes of Up? There’s a four minute montage with the older main character as you watch his marriage to his wife, but there’s no dialogue. You see the joys of them getting married, the sadness of their inability to have children, and the absolute depression he faces when his wife passes away. I saw it a couple nights ago and it was an absolutely terrible experience. But it’s funny, because Pixar is supposed to produce cartoons. Their stories are so creative and just so impressive and relatable that they transcend the medium.

It’s really no coincidence that Pixar’s one of the most creative places on Earth. In November 2000, Steve Jobs purchased 16 acres of abandoned canning factory land just north of Oakland, California. The original architectural plans for Pixar’s campus called for three separate buildings. There was to be one for the computer scientists, one for the animators, and one for the executives.

Naturally, Jobs scrapped those plans entirely. Instead of three separate buildings, he built one building with a single vast atrium at its center. This is because Jobs rightly understood that creativity happens when people are exposed to people of all disciplines. So, he put the most important function of the building, which was facilitating that interaction, at its center.

Simply creating the space wasn’t enough for Jobs. He needed people to actually go there. So, he first moved the mailboxes and the meeting rooms there. He moved the cafeteria there, the gift shop, and now are you seeing a trend? It got so bad that Jobs mandated that the only set of bathrooms be built in the atrium. Thankfully, for Pixar employees, he was forced to later concede on this point.

Now, of this change, Brad Bird, the director of Ratatouille and The Incredibles, had this to say:

“Initially the atrium might seem like a waste of space, but Steve realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.”

John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, had this to say regarding the intersection:

“Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology.”

Humanities and Technology (20:25)

I can’t think of anybody that challenged the technology more so than Jobs. You know, one of the reasons that we love Jobs is that he went off and studied disciplines that really had nothing to do with engineering. He took ballroom dancing and he took calligraphy. Then he approached technology from a unique perspective, infusing the liberal arts into his products.

Jobs saw himself as a humanities person first that loved electronics.

Similarly, I see myself as a humanities person that loves technology. My introduction to programming was ”C++ in 21 Days” in sixth grade. A buddy handed me this book, and being the type A kid that I was, I just knew that I was going to learn C++ in exactly 21 days. I had no idea what C++ was. I was actually doing really well, until I hit day eight. Pointers. This experience, this sort of brick wall that I hit, shaped how I viewed programming for a long time. I always felt like there was going to be a brick wall that I would hit, and then I wouldn’t be able to overcome it.

My favorite class in high school was humanities, which was this combination between English and history. And so, because my favorite class wasn’t math or science, which I was told were the natural corollaries to programming, I didn’t see how I could fit as a programmer. One of the things that’s most excited me about our industry is seeing the evolution in how we introduce people to programming.

Interactive Learning (22:01)

Now, this is a screenshot from One Hour of Code by Code.org. In it, you drag programmable blocks in order to navigate the angry bird to its destination. Esoteric texts, like the one I picked up, are being replaced by these fun and imaginative tutorials. They’re the kind of tutorials that encourage you to learn how to program, that make you feel like anyone can learn it, and that you have a right to learn it if you want to.

They’ve had such reach that even President Obama has gotten involved. I’m hopeful that through resources like Khan Academy and Code.org, we’re going to continue to grow the pool of who has access to learning about programming and learning about technology.

This is what our industry needs. We need a demystification that doesn’t make people feel like they need to be preternaturally gifted, or a genius, in order to learn how to program. Programming is a skill; you work at it like anything else. It’s important to me that kids who don’t feel particularly adept at math or science still feel like they can make a meaningful contribution to technology. One of the more exciting things for me, in doing the research for this talk, has been in seeing just how important the people who stand at this intersection between humanities and technology are for the continued evolution and innovation of our industry.

Thank you.

Q&A (23:41)

Q: Your message was that we should all be integrating this mindset into whatever technology that we are working on. If you were to change Dropbox, how would you integrate technology into it?

Ashley: I think it starts with empathy for the user. I can’t speak for the company, and I’m certainly not going to try to speak for Dropbox, but I think it starts off with putting yourself in your user’s shoes. Make sure that as wide a pool of people can use your products as possible. Make sure that your products are as accessible as they should be, and that everyone can use them.

About the content

This talk was delivered live in June 2015 at AltConf. The video was recorded, produced, and transcribed by Realm, and is published here with the permission of the conference organizers.

Ashley Nelson-Hornstein

Ashley Nelson-Hornstein