Damon Horowitz, a philosophy professor and “serial entrepreneur,” recently joined Google as an In-House Philosopher/Director of Engineering. Prior to his work at Google, Horowitz co-founded Aardvark, Perspecta, and a number of other tech companies. In this talk at Stanford University’s 2011 BiblioTech conference on “Human Experience,” Horowitz explains why he left a highly-paid tech career, in which he sought the keys to artificial intelligence, to pursue a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Stanford (the text of the talk is available here).
Horowitz offers fellow techies a formidable challenge, but a worthwhile one. In saying so, I must confess a bias: As a student and teacher of the humanities, I have watched with some dismay as the culture becomes increasingly dominated by technicians who often ignore or dismiss pressing philosophical and ethical problems in their quest to build a better world. It is gratifying to hear from someone who recognized this issue by (temporarily) giving up what he admits was a great deal of power and societal privilege and headed back to the classroom.
Horowitz describes his intellectual journey from “technologist” to philosopher with passion and candor, and concludes that as a result of his academic inquiry, he “no longer looks for machines to solve all of our problems for us,” and no longer assumes that he knows what’s best for his users. This kind of humility and intellectual flexibility is, ideally, the outcome of a higher degree in the humanities, and Horowitz uses his own trials to make a case for better critical thinking, for a “humanistic perspective,” in the tech sector and elsewhere. For examples, see Horowitz’s TED talks on a “moral operating system” and “philosophy in prison.” Complicating Google’s well-known, unofficial slogan “don’t be evil,” Horowitz, drawing on Hannah Arendt, believes that most of the evil in the world comes not from bad intentions but from “not thinking.”
In a related Stanford talk (above) from the same seminar, Marissa Mayer, former Vice President of Consumer Products at Google, discusses how she incorporated the humanities into product innovation at Google. The first female engineer at Google (and its youngest executive at the time of this talk), she has made headlines recently, becoming the new CEO of Yahoo.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.