Bibliotech’ is not the name of yet another digital humanities project, but a conference that took place at Stanford on May, 11th 2011(http://humanexperience.stanford.edu/bibliotech/about-us).
Its organizers, especially Anais Saint-Jude, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, boldly envisioned Bibliotech to be the place where bibliophile aspiring humanists meet technophile senior business leaders from the ‘valley’ a few miles south (i.e. Silicon Valley). According to President John Hennessy’s opening remarks the conference was simply another first in a whole series of pioneering endeavors that have made Stanford University a hub for innovation, unrivaled by peer institutions.
A decade ago, when the new economy bubble burst, the parties to the conversation blissfully ignored or even ridiculed each other. Things are much better now. Still, Bibilotech did not always steer clear of the kind of awkwardness that is bred by the failure to understand each other (‘what does recontextualizing mean?’) and take each other seriously. At times, this awkwardness was even visible in the body language of some of the speakers and panelists.
The first person to break the ice and make a passionate case for the new partnership was Vivek Ranadivé, the CEO and founder of TIBCO, a software company. According to Ranadivé, the twenty-first century is the century of the so-called ‘right brainers’, who will steal the power from the left brainers, those left -brainers who single-handedly built many of the tech companies that are the pride of corporate America. According to Ranadivé, the day on which Apple’s market capitalization passed Microsoft’s market capitalization marks the beginning of the new era, an era in which creative, out-of-the-box approaches to technology and communications will outsmart conventional tech solutions devised by 'philistine' left-brainers.
It seemed to be the general consensus that Silicon Valley needs creative thinkers to boost and sustain innovation. There was also widespread agreement that educational policies that focus on funding engineering programs and cutting down on liberal arts majors cannot be successful in the long run, as industry leaders in Singapore and China have started to realize.
But not everyone shared Ranadivés’ belief that humanities Ph.D.s are the right kind of right brainers. His namesake Vivek Wadhwa bluntly observed that people who spend ‘nine years working on a dissertation’ (sic!) will not be able to add any value to Silicon Valley businesses, because they just haven’t acquired any relevant skills. Regardless of whether Wadhwa was encouraged to play devil’s advocate or spontaneously chose to be the bad cop, his rant against the new humanities hype raises interesting questions – to what extent does solid scholarship translate into having acquired any skills that are crucial for the business world? Is thinking a lot about 17th century Parisian theater performances really a good way to steel oneself for a C-level job at a tech company? Or is it, as Stanford's Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht suggested, the humanist’s implacable ‘weirdness’, her obsession with weird and bizarre questions, that makes her a perfect addition to most technocratic teams (the very idea of ‘salting’ a team of 10 tech-minded people with one and only one humanist was propagated by Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock, several hours later)
Next up was Google’s Marissa Mayer, the wunderkind of Silicon Valley, coming home to her undergraduate campus,on which she majored in Symbolic Systems, one of those unique Stanford majors designed to give a broad overview of four related areas. Some Ph.D. students in the audience may have been secretly holding their breath and waiting for Mayer to announce that a deal with Stanford will be brokered, a deal that commits Google to hiring a certain number of Ph.D.s every year, but those unacknowledged hopes turned out to be futile. In fact, for all the rhetorical praise of the humanities that inundated the room, none of the industry leaders were ready to commit to any concrete program or measure addressing the career-related concerns of humanities Ph.D.s. That is not necessarily a bad outcome, since the point of the conference was to start a conversation and build trust and not to produce results (even though some Silicon Valley representatives took pleasure in reminding the Silicon Valley culture is more results-oriented than Academia).
One keynote address stood out. It was Michael Moritz’s (Moritz is CEO of Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm.) In his very personal talk, Moritz avoided the pitfall of being naively enthusiastic about a humanities Ph.D.’s ability to transform Silicon Valley, but he was not extremely pessimistic or cynical either. He made an honest effort to give job searchers that want to leave Academia valuable advice. ‘Give me the impression that you didn’t just regard the 5 years of your PhD as a convenient extension of your undergrad years - show me that you were captivated and driven by something’.
According to Moritz, the high priests of Silicon Valley in 2011 are still engineers and computer scientists, even if only a minority of them think like Larry Ellison, the Oracle CEO who once infamously remarked: ‘If you don’t code and if you don’t sell, why do you work here?’
Maybe Bibliotech was in fact the feeble beginning of a new era, an era in which the power in technology companies will be shared more equally among people whose talents straddle different areas. And if Silicon Valley cares about the content that is being communicated through its various distribution platforms, it cannot afford to not recruit talented humanists. Good content needs curation and effective communication requires a thorough and empathetic understanding of the habits and expectations of the consumers. Humanities folks have a great deal to contribute to both successful communication management and high-quality content curation. The hardest challenge for humanities Ph.D.s now is getting a foot into the (many) door(s) of Silicon Valley. Bibliotech cracked these doors open. It remains to be seen how many humanities Ph.D.s walk in.