TCS Daily

New Minds in Old Bottles

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 22, 2005 12:00 AM

I've written before (here, too) about automation, unemployment, and the new economy. Now, in his new book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Dan Pink offers us a handle on what's going on, and offers his readers some practical advice on how to prepare for the new world that's coming, one that will be dominated by "abundance, Asia, and automation." In short, Pink thinks that as machines and lower-cost workers get better at the routine stuff, we'll have to be a lot more creative and intuitive.

Pink is a very smart guy, and he's definitely onto something. But I wonder if his prescription fits the problem as neatly as the book suggests, and I worry that people will misapply his message.

To summarize his approach, Pink believes that the Industrial Revolution valued and encouraged a particular kind of thought process, one that's generally known as "left-brain" thinking: The sort of linear Spock-like logic that is embodied in things like accounting or math. "Right brain" thinking is more holistic, embodying sudden flashes of insight and more empathy and emotion than logic. (I'm tempted to invoke Dr. McCoy here, but will refrain.) He thinks that as machines and routinized processes using low-cost labor get better at the left-brain work, Americans will have to make better use of their right-brain capabilities.

Pink is smart enough to acknowledge that these are caricatures, and that they've been wildly overpopularized in the past, as they have. ("Oh no, not that left/right brain stuff again," commented my psychologist wife when she saw the book). He also stresses that the two aren't really distinct, but part of a whole:

        "Human beings somehow seem naturally inclined to see life in contrasting 
        pairs. East versus West. Mars versus Venus. Logic versus emotion.

        "Left versus right. Yet, in most realms we usually don't have to pick sides 
        -- and it's often dangerous if we do. For instance, logic without emotion is 
        a chilly, Spock-like existence. Emotion without logic is a weepy, hysterical 
        world where the clocks are never right and the buses always late. In the end, 
        yin always needs yang. This is especially true when it comes to our brains."

I think that's right. Certainly in terms of "Eureka" moments, the end result is often the product of a lot of linear thinking that leads up to the intuitive breakthrough. Peter Gallison's book, Einstein's

Clocks, Poincare's Maps, for example, notes that much of Einstein's scientific creativity actually came from the careful, lawyerly approach he learned from his work as a patent clerk. As one reviewer observes, this is "an eye-opening surprise given the all-pervasive image of Einstein as an otherworldly thinker oblivious to his surroundings." But it shouldn't be that much of a surprise, really.

And that's what bothers me about Pink's book. It's not Pink's approach, really: Pink is quick to note that right-brain work isn't necessarily easier, and his book even includes exercises for bolstering one's skills. Nor does he sell it as a substitute for mastering the other stuff. But I think that for too many people the appeal of "holistic" and "right-brain" approaches is that they seem, well, easier than those tiresome traditional linear approaches with all their steps, increments, and, well, work. How much better to zip across the territory with a single flash of genius!

But genius, remember, has more to do with perspiration than inspiration. And while our workplaces may be too unfriendly to right brain thinking, they're a lot friendlier than they used to be. (Pink notes that Henry Ford's factories fired people for smiling or laughing on the job, in keeping with Ford's dictum that "When we are at work we ought to be at work. When we are at play we ought to be at play. There is no use trying to mix the two." There aren't many workplaces like that now.) In fact, it's arguable that most business management could benefit from a more traditional approach to balance sheets and bottom lines: More thinking inside the Income Statement, and less effort to think "outside the box."

Meanwhile, our educational facilities probably need more left-brain rigor. Logic and rigorous linear thinking are hardly at the forefront of today's educational approaches, and if people are to have the tools to support those flashes of inspiration, they're going to have to come from somewhere. (How bad have things gotten? Writing in the Los Angeles Times, David Gelernter urges parents to teach their children history because the public schools certainly won't.)

Inspiration, like fortune, favors the well-prepared mind. The ability to think clearly but freely is very useful and Pink's book is a helpful explanation of why. But just as the ability to play guitar "naturally" requires lots of repetition and practice, so the ability to think creatively generally requires lots of less-exciting groundwork before those flashes of genius are likely to appear. Will educators -- and parents -- take that message along with Pink's book? I hope so.


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