On Words: Being More ‘Human’ in a Digital World

February 22, 2021 By Alex Hernandez, ahernandez@virginia.edu Alex Hernandez, ahernandez@virginia.edu

My favorite machines growing up were R2-D2 and the Terminator. In “Star Wars,” R2-D2 serves as Luke Skywalker’s copilot, helping the hero adventure through the galaxy. Looking at the future through the R2 lens, intelligent technology amplifies what humans can accomplish.

Then there is the Terminator metaphor. In this 1984 dystopian thriller, smart technology is coming for us and we are all Sarah Connors trying to hop in our Jeeps and escape the onslaught.

We fear a Terminator future, where people lose their livelihoods to machines, but the digital transformation has largely been about using software to automate workflows to help people become more productive. It’s the R2-D2 model, without the quirky charm. Today, many jobs are performed through software like Salesforce, Epic and Workday. And we are beginning to see artificial intelligence and machine learning bolster human expertise in profound ways. 

In a world where every job is a human-plus-technology role, the late digital strategist Esko Kilpi reminds us that the future of work is squarely about people: people’s relationships with intelligent technology, and people’s relationships with other people.

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As technology takes on a greater share of the work, employers are reshaping jobs to focus on tasks that humans are uniquely qualified to do. The McKinsey Global Institute projects that demand for social, emotional and advanced thinking skills will grow rapidly, right behind the basic digital skills that are now table stakes for every career.

The digital world, maybe counterintuitively, requires us to be more human. In his new book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” Lumina Foundation CEO Jamie Merisotis offers that “human work blends human traits like compassion, empathy, and ethics with our developed human capabilities like critical analysis, interpersonal communication, and creativity.”

A liberal arts education is how we explore what it means to be human. We learn how to communicate ideas, solve problems and form values by wrestling with texts and discussing them with our peers. The words “liberal arts” do not often generate the same enthusiasm as “coding bootcamps” among people trying to burnish their résumés; however, a liberal arts education is a mighty approach, dare I say a timeless approach, to teaching the deeper human skills people need to thrive.

A digital world creates a tremendous opportunity for world-class liberal arts institutions like the University of Virginia to weave together human and digital skills for students in new, compelling ways. This is easier said than done: liberal arts, technical and professional education can warily coexist, often retreating to separate corners of the proverbial house. But for tens of millions of Americans, disentangling human and digital skills is no longer possible.

The College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Continuing and Professional Studies are partnering on a new effort called UVA Edge, a one-year, online program for the 36 million working adults who never finished a postsecondary degree. Students learn human and digital skills that are in demand by employers and earn 20 undergraduate credits from UVA.

The first course is “Knowledge in the Digital Age,” a liberal arts course taught by Chad Wellmon, a chief architect of the College’s New Curriculum. Wellmon’s students will analyze their own social media data, the personalized content they receive based on their data, and how they construct knowledge from this content. The project marries critical thinking, communication and ethics – deeper skills that take time to develop – in a digital context.

UVA Edge is but one example of how we might project the liberal arts beyond our classrooms, bringing human and digital skills together to unlock opportunity for workers trying to navigate this new economy. Indeed, this is one of the great challenges of our generation, and I would argue is central to fulfilling our university’s public mission. Or to quote R2-D2, “[beep, beep, whir, whir, long whistle].”

UVA Edge is generously supported by the Jefferson Trust Foundation, Jobs For the Future and the Kern Family Foundation.

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