What can technology learn from humans?

Laura Cogan is editor of Zyzzyva, *a *San Francisco journal that prints quarterly a selection of poems, short stories and creative nonfiction by writers in the Bay Area. I’ve been receiving it for almost two years, and my heart races when I come home to find the new issue waiting for me.

In this quarter’s issue, Winter 2015, Laura’s “Letter From the Editor”* strongly resonated with me. This year *Zyzzyva celebrates 30 years in print, no small feat for an independently financed journal of writing and art. Laura’s letter touched on the role of writing and art in a city saturated by technology. I think about this constantly, and often feel conflicted about working at a company that is indisputably at the center of much debate on how technology is changing our city—for better or for worse.

Laura’s words are far more poignant than my attempt to paraphrase, so I will share a passage in full.

Working out of San Francisco plays a part in keeping us focused. We all know this city is changing, and that artists and writers and the organizations that support them are under increasing pressure. In a fraught economy of apps and “sharing”, San Francisco may offer the country a representative future, one destined to reach across the continent and wreak disruption along the way. I hope we may yet also offer the country a representative model in how to push back against some of these tides, reversing the crowding out of culture and diminishment of bohemian life, working vigorously to preserve the diversity of voices and vocations that make a city thrive.

I’m not inclined to see a binary opposition between tech and the arts as inevitable or organic, and I’m troubled by the prevalence of that attitude—and how easily it lends itself to a corresponding condescension to the arts (and publishing, too), as though the only way to look forward or to be visionary is through the lens of an app; as though we must take for granted that paper and ink are hopelessly outdated. Too often the implicit question seems to be, How can tech improve literature and help publishing? Too seldom do we ask what literature might teach tech.

The literary and visual arts are an essential part of what has made San Francisco innovative, beautiful, and visionary. It is a concentration of culture, after all, that makes a city a city. Without it, San Francisco would be all surface, a glorified bedroom community with pockets of its urban past preserved for tourists.

The last two sentences in the second paragraph have been echoing in my head since I first read them in December. It is a question that deserves consideration on a larger scale than just writing and publishing. The implicit question, in San Francisco and in many other cities with burgeoning technology communities, seems to be “how can tech improve […]?”

Too seldom are we asking what technology can learn from humans. Things like trust and mutual respect. A right to privacy. Better yet, what can humans learn from humans? The baseline assumption that all knowledge and entertainment must now be served to humans by technology is flawed.

Thanks, Laura.