Technologist as Intellectual

Theral Timpson

Over the weekend one of our listeners wrote in an email proposing the idea of technologist as intellectual.

I’m assuming that this person has been listening to one of our favorite questions of late. Are scientists and engineers the new world leaders?

My favorite answer to this question came from Chris Mooney, a science journalist and author of The Republican Brain, who came on the show before the last election to talk about science in politics. To the question, Mooney replied:

"If they are, they don’t know it."

Mooney doesn’t deny that it may be the case. And he goes on to acknowledge the “immense power they wield” in that science has become the “key to prosperity, the key to industry, and the key to power.” Mooney says that on the other hand, scientists are “highly disorganized and not ready to take the power that could be theirs.”

Since our reader’s email came in, I’ve been thinking about the term, intellectual. What does it mean in the 21st century? We've come a long ways from referring to "men of letters." Reading through the Wiki article on intellectual, I pulled out two key traits that still work for defining one in today’s world. First, an intellectual deals in abstract thought. Think mathematics and physics, or philosophy. Second, intellectuals have a publicness about them in that they typically challenge existing power structures or the status quo. They are different than an academic or expert in that they take their sophisticated ideas to the public.

Perhaps the iconic life science intellectual of today is Richard Dawkins. He came up with his idea of gene-centered evolution and his concept of ‘memes’ in his book The Selfish Gene, recently released in the 30th Anniversary Edition. Dawkin's books are for scientists but also for the lay reader. And he has developed a public persona. He’s become an activist, most notably for atheism.

George Church got caught in a media flap a few weeks ago when he talked openly to the German magazine, Der Spiegel, about the very real possibility of cloning dinosaurs among other trends in biology. Church is not as much of a lightning rod as Dawkins, but he went further than I've seen him go before. The Spiegel interviewers tried pretty hard to nail him down on whether he believes in God or not, which he danced around with the sophistication of a Cirque de Soleil acrobat. But the line I found most telling was,

“I'm not advocating. I'm just saying, this is the pathway that might happen.”

Church is saying that we need to think more about the future of biology. He’s coming out of his lab at Harvard and sharing some of what he knows as a scientist with the public. Perhaps we could call him the reluctant intellectual.

And what about the technologist? Church is every bit as much a technologist as scientist. In our interview last year with him, he said when he was young, his interest was in computers and biology. And he brought the two together. Strictly speaking, a technologist uses science or technology to solve practical problems. But these days, quite often, a scientist is also a technologist. Both George Church and Institute for Systems Biology founder, Lee Hood, built their careers bringing science and technology together. Science advances and spawns new technology. New technologies, like the DNA synthesizer and sequencers that Church and Hood worked on, then enable and speed up science. The two are inextricably linked.

What names could we come up with for pure technologists who are intellectuals? Is Bill Gates an intellectual, or just a rich philanthropist? What about Steve Jobs? Was he more than a brilliant entrepreneur? Did he promote an ideology?

In our reader’s email, he put forth the name of Richard Stallman who worked on the first free operating system which became Linux. Stallman has been an activist for free software. I read that he was able to get a state in India to dump Windows on all their computers and install free software. That sounds like something an intellectual would do.

What about the folks over at Google? Former CEO, Eric Schmidt made a trip to North Korea recently with politician Bill Richardson. And he’s invested in some hobbies like journalism and space robotics mining, following in the steps of Richard Branson. He’s even rumored to have wanted to be a talk show host, but this hardly qualifies him as an intellectual.

Google's Serge Brin and his wife Anne Wojcicki jumped into the spotlight with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan and others last week at UCSF for the establishment of a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. A sort of American Nobel Prize, the awards will be ongoing and this year honored the likes of Titia de Lange and Eric Lander for their achievements. In a post today, Xconomy's Luke Timmerman lauds Zuckerberg particularly for the message this gives to young people. Timmerman acknowledges Zuckerberg's "intellectual gifts" and "business acumen" in bringing a billion sets of eyes to his brainchild site. But he also insists that Zuckerberg's age enables him to make a greater impression on young people. Here's a quote from Zuckerberg at the awards ceremony:

"The reason I’m excited about this is that I think our society needs more heroes that are scientists and researchers and engineers. You are doing all this amazing work. The thing we can do from the sidelines is build institutions that celebrate and reward and recognize all of the real work you guys are doing to cure diseases, to expand our understanding of humanity, and to improve people’s lives in all these ways.

“A lot of this isn’t about even you guys here today. A lot of what we’re doing here is about the next generation of folks. The students, the college students, and grad students who are in labs today, trying to figure out what they should work on and research. And younger kids who are trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. Hopefully, what we’re doing here today can help create something that will be really inspirational to folks, to encourage more people to do the important work you’re taking on."

Is the Facebook founder becoming a new kind of intellectual in a hoody?

Use Google to do a search for 'technologist as intellectual' and you’ll be buried with a list of discussions of intellectual property relating to tech. Yes, technologists are good at coming up with intellectual realty, but are they intellectuals? Coming up with powerful algorithms requires some brilliance in abstract thinking, but to what end?

When I think back on the guests we've had on the show in the past year, a few fellows come to mind as intellectuals. I mentioned Church, but I might add sci-fi writers, Stan Robinson and David Brin, Open Science Activist, Joseph Jackson, and Innothink's Bernard Munos. Brin, who is also a scientist, is more of a provocative public figure than Robinson. Jackson is a philosopher who loves to rant about open science, the perils of the patent system, and the waste of talent spent writing meaningless apps. Munos was a late bloomer. Once he had his retirement secure from Eli Lilly, he went public with his gospel about the pharma industry in crisis. But unlike many other pharma leaders, Munos talks not just of economic, but moral and leadership crisis.

The concept of intellectual is different today than a couple hundred years ago when the majority of the population was illiterate. Should we add 'writing code' to the list of abstract thinking? Humanities departments at universities around the globe have been shrinking, crowded out by science and technology. In this year's SOTU, the president said we should have even more science and technology in education.

Richard Feynman said "Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds." And I've been provoking our guests with Stephen Hawking's statement at a Google conference last year that "philosophy is dead." What does the intellectual of 2013 look like?

I end with a line from our reader's email:

"Thus it is not philosophy that is irrelevant but that society is being influenced by science and technology in such intimate and fundamental ways that philosophical questions of relevance require technical sophistication to reason about correctly."

Nicely put.

Your thoughts?