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Combining computation and liberal arts

Information is the new oil.

The information economy has superseded the industrial economy of the past two and a half centuries.  This new economy exploits two well-understood economic properties: digital information is non-rival, and it has close to zero marginal reproduction cost. In other words, digital information is not “used up” when it gets consumed, its re-use may add more value and, what’s more, it can be disseminated almost instantaneously and globally.

The information economy is driving an unprecedented reallocation of wealth and income in almost every industry. For example, Facebook Inc. has a market value several times greater than Eastman Kodak Co. ever did and has created at least seven billionaires, each of whom has a net worth 10 times greater than George Eastman ever had. On the flip side, it has already brought maladjustments, which refers to the inability of our skills, organizations and institutions to keep pace with technical change.

Computers are improving much faster than we are. Intel Corp.’s latest chip, the size of your thumbnail, has 5 billion transistors in it (in 1971, its first chip had fewer than 100), and its replacement will have 10 billion, doubling every two years or so what has been achieved in the history of computers up to that point! Computers are becoming better at doing many disparate tasks that people now get paid to do. Unless you can transcend technology and apply context, you will be replaced by technology. New technology destroys jobs, but it also creates new ones and better technology creates better jobs.

Indeed, the very nature of work is changing and the skills valued are changing too. An Australian agency recently reported that 60 percent of students in that country are training for jobs that will not exist in the future. A recent British study found that “job seekers today must be literate when it comes to information and communication technology. They must build basic e-skills to compete in a global marketplace.” Thus, the workforce of the future must have a sound understanding of the fundamental underpinnings, and limitations, of information and the technologies that manipulate it.

However, today and tomorrow’s high-value skills are those that define our human nature, such as working productively in teams, critical thinking, communicating and problem solving, the very skills fostered and enriched by a liberal arts education. I submit that we need both sets of skills, digital and soft.

More than 50 percent of available jobs in the United States in the future will be related to computing and information technologies. There is a common misconception that one has to major in computer science, information systems and the like to work with information and digital technology. I disagree; in fact, I propose that digital technology is no longer the purview of scientists and engineers, and that digital creations are no longer the realm of specialists.

Today, it is the effective design, implementation and use of information and digital technology that is driving career opportunities. Computer scientists, software engineers and security experts will always be needed. However, the vast majority of people who will make effective use of information to solve problems will be professionals in any discipline armed with a working knowledge of digital technologies.

The combination of being fluent in technology and understanding how to use that fluency to shape experiences is at the heart of Keuka College’s strategy for the 21st century professional—which we have coined Digital Learning @Keuka College (DL@KC). Our goal is not to make everyone a dedicated computer programmer; rather, we want everyone to develop a base digital acumen based on the broad-based framework typical of liberal arts education, providing skills that can seamlessly integrate complex thinking and creative problem-solving with digital technologies. This way, we are educating a new kind of professional who will control the future of information within the context of his or her specific specialties, while bringing the rigor and methods of liberal arts to the digital environment.

The transformative experience of the liberal arts has traditionally led to success across many different fields, and it stands to make an even greater impact in the information economy. The core practices that have made liberal education so successful cannot be replaced by technology. Rather, liberal education will mesh perfectly with continued technological advancements.

Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera is president of Keuka College.

12/11/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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