The Quantified Poet: A Case for Liberal Arts in Technology



On Word Nerds & Mathletes

It’s no secret that many people working in technology today don’t have a high opinion of the liberal arts major, seeing it as outdated or lacking in utility.

Business Insider recently reported on a talk in which Silicon Valley genius and legend Marc Andreessen issued a few provocative thoughts on the value of education:

Andreessen thinks there are really two types of degrees that can be pursued.

  1. A math-based major, like engineering or economics. Those will set people up in a big way, according to Andreessen
  2. The “softer stuff,” like English.

I’m sure it’s fun, but the average college graduate with a degree in something like English is going to end up working in a shoe store, he said.

This echoes President Obama’s off-the-cuff, soon-thereafter-recanted remark about the uselessness of studying art history over something utilitarian like manufacturing.

If you’re speaking strictly in terms of economic gain, there is a precedent for these statements, but the quants of the world, even as they invade such sacred economic havens for the mathematically challenged as marketing and publishing, don’t hold all the keys to kingdom.

Even though the two sides of the coin have historically been separated by departments, the old dichotomy of poets and quants is increasingly becoming more of a diptych.

Marketing organizations are making a pointed move toward integrating these disparate intellects, with writers and programmers irrevocably towed by the pull of next-world communication, informed by natural language processing and generation, cognitive assistants, machine learning, deep learning, and who knows what else on down the line.

liberal arts technology

The Balancing Act of Data-Driven Creativity

The literati and technorati have more in common than one might think, beyond the trifecta of carpal tunnel syndrome, dry eyes, and bad posture born from clocking serious computer hours.

Alex Protopapas, Director of Content Engineering, and Matthew Bower, Content Manager for Product/Engineering, weigh in on their journey to Persado and the “quant’ing” of language.

Matt: As content engineers, we write and develop content according to an ontology that allows us to isolate what it is about a specific semantic or formal expression that resonates with an audience.

Alex: It all comes down to an understanding of language, quantifying it through the lens of prior performance, and being able to analyze it for the context you’re studying.  

Matt: My background is in academic philosophy. I studied logic and did most of my coursework in philosophy of literature and language. When I moved to New York, I started copywriting. It was more journalistic–blogs, content, that kind of thing. In academia, there isn’t a sharp divide between the quantitative and the “poet,” or qualitative sides. Persado is unique with the opportunity to combine opposite sides of things.

liberal arts technology

Alex: Before Persado, I worked on a radio show, wrote for magazines, was a copywriter. One way or another all of my jobs have revolved around creating content.  

As a copywriter for magazine ads, I’d receive a brief then write the content. The process hinged on what I thought worked best based on personal opinion; it had nothing to do with facts. There was no direct way of connecting what I wrote with how it performed.  In contrast, the film and TV industries have been monitoring ratings and making data-based decisions for decades now.

I think the most innovative aspect of Persado is that we can make those data-based decisions for written and now visual creative. We address a basic desire: If I’m a brand, I want to know whether what I’m using is measurably effective so that I can make informed decisions.

For copywriters, it’s helpful to associate data with your opinion of what works so you can make educated decisions. Even with Persado, you still make the decisions. It’s not just an algorithm generating then auto-broadcasting. The human element is critical, making Persado a powerful tool for human writers and marketers to learn from.

There are certain assumptions–often considered best practices–that we’ve seen fail in the face of data. For example, creatives are often tempted to put a limit to something, like “limited time only” or “while supplies last,” to inspire people to get moving. In the digital space, not only is it not effective, it’s the least effective thing you can do to talk about your product.

We recently tested the response rates between “awesome news,” “great news,” and “good news” as the introductory phrase for an email subject line. It was interesting that “great news” was the huge loser, “awesome news” was the big winner, and “good news” was better than “great news,” which is obviously counterintuitive.

Matt: The “poets/quants” thing is a false dichotomy. The Persado process has a baked-in mechanism for feedback that gives the marketer a direct view into how the consumer prefers to be communicated to.

It improves on the convention of best practices rather than making decisions based on something that we just believe, by tradition, to be good. People can now significantly–and systematically–amplify the effectiveness of their creative thanks to machine learning and data.

liberal arts technology

Waxing Poetic with a Silicon Heart

It’s a two-way street. The sacred knowledge of language, narrative and character that many writers bear as their beloved burden is now a coveted boon to the math-minded.  

In April, The Washington Post published a piece called “Why Poets Are Flocking to Silicon Valley,” in which writer Elizabeth Dwoskin described the burgeoning market for masters of the written word working cheek by jowl with “the quants.”

Behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just software engineers. Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools.

She goes on to describe “Microsoft Cortana’s six-person writing team” as including “a poet, a novelist, a playwright and a former TV writer.” Together the team collaborates on soft-skill decisions related to Cortana’s personality, including expressed political views and reactions to goading obscenities. The latter, of course, is a means by which Microsoft hopes to avoid reliving the horror of @TayTweets.

The unicorn tech darling of the moment, Slack, employs a one-person editorial team to focus on designing interactions with Slackbot. As Forbes reports:

[Anna Pickard] earned a theater degree from Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University… After winning acclaim for her blogging, videogame writing and cat impersonations, she found her way into tech, where she cooks up zany replies to users who type in “I love you, Slackbot.” It’s her mission, Pickard explains, “to provide users with extra bits of surprise and delight.”

The elephant in the room is that the math-minded far outnumbered the “liberal arts softies” in the tech world, but don’t underestimate the latter’s knowledge and utility. As direct, one-to-one personalization moves toward the center of the Big Tech conversation, someone’s going to need to speak like a human.

Technology is moving toward personalization and personality. Marketing is sliding toward metrics-minded scalability. The distinction between “poets” and “quants” might currently still hold for individuals, but no company or department can survive as merely one or the other. Not for much longer, anyway.