Taking Steve Jobs Seriously: Innovation and the Liberal Arts
Intervention dans le cadre du colloque "Participating in innovation, innovating in participation", organisé les 3 et 4 décembre 2015 à Mines ParisTech.
Last November (2014), the French newspaper Le Monde published an article on recent ideas in engineering education. The article, “Un défi pour les écoles : inventer l’ingénieur de 2030” started with a question: “Les écoles d’ingénieurs françaises sauront-elles former le Léonard de Vinci, le Gustave Eiffel ou le Steve Jobs du XXIe siècle ? C’est loin d’être acquis, si l’on en croit l’Institut Mines-Télécom (IMT). Dans un document [IMT] … montre combien la formation d’ingénieurs en France devra s’adapter si le pays veut relever les défis qui l’attendent.” While Le Monde may be forgiven some journalistic hyperbole, its list of de Vinci, Eiffel and Jobs surely betrays a desire for the education of innovative designers rather than competent functionaries. What would it mean to take this desire seriously? What would it entail, for instance, to educate the next generation of engineers as Steve Jobs had advocated? Jobs said, in an interview, “Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world… And they brought with them, we all brought to this effort, a very liberal arts attitude” (Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview (1995) 1:07:00). Years later, at the launch of a new model of the iPad tablet computer, Jobs said “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing”. Even now — after Jobs — Apple describes itself this way: “From the very beginning, we have been a collective of individuals. Different kinds of people from different kinds of places. Artists, designers, engineers and scientists, thinkers and dreamers. An intersection of technology and the liberal arts. Diverse backgrounds, all working together” (Apple, “Inclusion Inspires Innovation”). I will argue that Jobs was right: the liberal arts are at the heart of technological innovation and that, therefore, the future of engineering education should revisit the past of the liberal arts and, more generally, the role of the human sciences in the design, analysis, and innovation of contemporary technology. In the terminology of the conference, I propose an understanding of educational systems as mechanisms of participation that produce not only social but also cultural, epistemological, and economic orderings.