Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Colvin, Humans Are Underrated

If you want to make it in our increasingly computerized world, you’d better learn to play well with others. This is the grossly simplified thesis of Geoff Colvin’s new book. (Colvin is a senior editor at large for Fortune, but you probably best know him for his Talent Is Overrated, which touted deliberate practice). In Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (Portfolio / Penguin, 2015) Colvin asks how we human beings can carve out a meaningful work space for ourselves when computers do so many things—and will increasingly do even more things—better than we can.

He argues that we can be great performers simply by being human, where being human means being social. “We are hardwired to connect social interaction with survival. No connection can be more powerful.” (p. 38) “Social interaction is what our brains are for.” (p. 39)

Computers may take over an increasing number of tasks that human beings used to perform, but, Colvin argues, there’s a limit to what we will accept computers doing. The question therefore is not what computers will never be able to do, a perilous line of inquiry, but what activities “we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans, regardless of what computers can do.” (p. 42)

He suggests that all important decisions will remain in the hands of human beings because “it’s a matter of social necessity that individuals be accountable for important decisions.” (p. 43) We’ll also perform the sorts of tasks that we haven’t clearly articulated and so aren’t amenable to computer analysis, goals and strategies that people must work out for themselves and that are best developed in groups. And then there are the tasks that “our most essential human nature demands” be performed by human beings—a doctor giving us a diagnosis, for instance, even if a computer supplied it.

The demand for cognitive skill in the workplace peaked in about the year 2000. The jobs that college graduates have been getting since that time require less brain work—“thus the widely noted upsurge in file clerks and receptionists with bachelor’s degrees.” (p. 47)

Cognitive skills are taking a back seat to social relationship skills. For instance, the work of lawyers is increasingly being taken over by infotech. Smart lawyers can still do well, “but not just because they’re smart. The key to differentiation lies entirely in the most deeply human realms of social interaction: understanding an irrational client, forming the emotional bonds needed to persuade that client to act rationally, rendering the sensing, feeling judgments that clients insist on getting from a human being.” (p. 48)

Beleaguered humanities majors—and women—may get a boost in the new economy. “Skills that employers badly want—critical thinking, clear communicating, complex problem solving—‘are skills taught at the highest levels in the humanities.’” (p. 178) And “the traits, tendencies, and abilities for which women have long shown greater strength than men will prove highly valuable for people of either sex who possess them.” (p. 164)

I would like to say that I was assuaged by Colvin’s book. But I keep thinking of instances of personal interaction that we once took for granted and that are now distant memories, retail clerks being a prime example. As technology advances, people adapt. In time we don’t miss having a human being on the other side of a transaction.

Moreover, Colvin’s world of social/economic relationships doesn’t create new jobs to replace the ones lost to technology. It simply, as far as I can ascertain, draws a line in the sand across which we dare (or don’t dare) technology to cross. I would hate to have to defend that line.

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