Should I strive to solve a human centric problem, or a technology centric problem? Or does it not matter? I have pondered this idea non-stop for the last few weeks. I’ve polled my friends and fallen asleep most nights with these concepts bouncing around my head.
These problems lie on a continuous spectrum. I see one side including an inner city social worker, and on the other, a Computer Scientist focusing on algorithm efficiency. Neither side of the spectrum is more important than the other. However, I ponder where I want to fit in.
All (or most) of our motivations in life are human centric. Unsurprising, as we are social beings at our core, motivated by both the people we love and the people we don’t even know.
Almost every engaging story I hear has a punch line that hinges on humanity. Occasionally, an event based story can liven a room, or make a news headline, ‘New planet discovered’ or ‘Did you see the awesome thunder storm last night?’. But often this pales in comparison to a seemingly trivial anecdote about a human interaction, ‘So, I ran into my ex last week’ or ‘Guess what the presidential candidate said?’. Our interests, as evidenced by our day to day conversations and TV choices, align more with humanity. Even as I slip into technology conversations, human themes always dominate the conversation: ‘how can we model the brain as a system?’, ‘where are aliens we can interact with?’.
Technology is often easy, controllable. Humans are messy, fickle, and unpredictable. I don’t mean to say that technological problems aren’t difficult to solve. Instead, their solutions tend to have a bit more of a recipe to them. A cup of scientific method here, a splash of trial and error there. Often, a purely technical solution can be examined by a metric of a single number. That idea disappears when a human enters the mix.
This human messiness simultaneously attracts me towards it and propels me away. The ambiguity makes successes much sweeter. When I solve a human centric problem, I feel like I float with joy. Whether in the form of a deep connection over beers with a new friend, or helping a young student reach that tangible point of realization and see the world in a new way. There are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions for humans.
I’ve been asking this question to the smartest people I know. I’ve paraphrased a few of their answers:
Don’t over think it. There is merit in improving yourself. Focus on improving yourself and you will improve the world. A focus on technical pursuits is admirable, as it will all ultimately trickle down to help humanity. -Engineer on a non-consumer product
The end goal matters, not the specific task. You can be working on the most complicated, technical, far removed problem. As long as it contributes to a worthy, human centric goal, you are justified. -Data Scientist on a consumer product
You should be deliberately seeking out human centric problems to solve. Currently, there is quite a bit of funding and resources available to work on problems that do not matter, whether they are meaningless apps or flying cars. If you aren’t careful, you could easily spend your entire life wasting time on meaningless problems. -Energy Policy Specialist
One should pursue the technical world, as it provides more flexibility in one’s life. Flexibility is the key to happiness. -Brain-Computer interaction specialist.
What if your innate or learned skill set doesn’t line up with the human centric problems you crave to solve? it can be eye opening to look at a person like Bill Gates, a man who continues to use his technical prowess in order to affect the social problems he cares about. In our money based economy it is straightforward to convert value created in one sphere to create value in another. Should I then strive to create as much value (read ‘money’) in this world, and then funnel it to where I see fit? If that is the case, then technical problem solving here I come, and most likely a step into the financial sector.
My dream is to be a part of a company that bridges the gap between technical capitalistic solutions, and humanity improving solutions. These ideas are not mutually exclusive, though companies often separate the two, becoming purely profit driven or purely humanitarian. A brilliant company that comes to mind is Specialisterne, a Danish software testing/date entry company that hires predominantly employees who are on the Autism Spectrum. Typically, people on the Autism Spectrum face struggles when entering the social-focused working world. However, Specialisterne strives to create a catered work environment, allowing their employees to shine by maximizing the utility of thorough, detail oriented characteristics that often are attributed to Autism.
So, for now I’ll keep my ears, eyes, heart and laptop open, looking to solve a problem that lies at the center of that venn diagram.
Header photo © scripps.org