Our Own "Brave New World"


One of my favorites sources for this blog, David Brooks, is back at work on the New York Times after a long hiatus to promote his latest book. His column today is all about the increasing need for people to adapt to the computer in their work lives if they are to prosper in the future world that he and many see coming.

We’re living in an era of mechanized intelligence, an age in which you’re probably going to find yourself in a workplace with diagnostic systems, different algorithms and computer-driven data analysis. If you want to thrive in this era, you probably want to be good at working with intelligent machines. As Tyler Cowen puts it in his relentlessly provocative recent book, “Average Is Over,” “If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch.”

Then, Brooks lists a number of job categories which fit this prediction. Here is one of them: “Synthesizers. The computerized world presents us with a surplus of information. The synthesizer has the capacity to surf through vast amounts of online data and crystallize a generalized pattern or story.” There are seven more similar descriptions. But one is quite different and strikes me as quite relevant to my work.

Economizers. The bottom 85 percent is likely to be made up of people with less marketable workplace skills. Some of these people may struggle financially but not socially or intellectually. That is, they may not make much running a food truck, but they can lead rich lives, using the free bounty of the Internet. They could use a class of advisers on how to preserve rich lives on a small income.

I find this quite depressing. Not that it will necessarily happen, but because Brooks (and others) write as if our lives will be dominated by the Internet and all the devices that makes it work. I believe strongly that there is much more to life than the “free bounty of the Internet” can provide. If not, the fate of the human species is not very promising. Flourishing, the condition I believe would be the centerpiece of the kind of world we would want to sustain, rests critically on our relationships with the whole world, not just the omnipresent computer. Brooks’s column could easily be mistaken for a book review of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. The world of ‘synthesizers” and “economizers” doesn’t sound like a world I would choose to live in.

Brooks’s partially recognizes that in adding the last category.

Weavers. Many of the people who struggle economically will lack the self-motivation to build rich inner lives for themselves. Many are already dropping out of the labor force in record numbers and drifting into disorganized, disaffected lifestyles. Public and private institutions are going to hire more people to fight this social disintegration. There will be jobs for people who combat the dangerous inegalitarian tendencies of this new world.

But he misses the point entirely in this technocratic way of thinking about the future; we can solve all our social problems by putting “experts” to work. If you are “disorganized” or “disaffected,” just hire a new kind of therapist, a “weaver,” to lift your spirits such that life takes on new meaning. Huxley’s answer for the disaffection of the totalitarian world of the future was “soma,” a tranquilizer-like drug he invented long before Prozac and Valium came on the scene, perhaps to deal with the same kind of issues.

Brooks and other opinion writers are rarely willing to dig deeply into the causes of the social problems they seek solutions to. Does he really believe that the “weavers’ can allay the disaffection already present in the country? Or are they, like soma, simply going to make disaffection seem like the normal way to be? If there is an answer to the tightly bound life of the future, it will lie in recovering the caring core of our humanness. Hopefully, there will be people who choose to become “connectors,” my addition to Brooks’s list. Connectors are people who teach and motivate (maybe cajole) us to recognize and act through connections (and relationships) to ourselves, to other people, and to the whole world out there, most of which lies beyond the reach of the computer and its grasping extension, the Internet.

Connectors can come in many shapes, ranging from the powerful figures in our society to much more humble people like parents and schoolteachers. Imagine what might happen if President Obama used his bully pulpit to encourage us to hug one another as a small beginning to actually care for one another. Imagine what would happen if schoolteachers would instill respect and care for people and the world instead to turning their students into the machines to serve the new world that Brooks and others picture. Imagine a world where those same teachers taught their students how to think for themselves so that they become capable of digging below the surface of cultural life to find what really matters.

Connectors could lead parties into the wilderness (if it does still exist) so that we could begin to recover our sense of relationships with the non-human world. Care always takes place within a connected pair: the caring actor and the target of the caring action at the other end. Care requires consciousness to enable the actor to intentionally think about the other and what might be missing or necessary at the other end. Caring attempts to fill a missing piece of the other’s existential context. We can recognize this whenever we deem somebody’s action as coming from love.

Care is largely missing in the mechanized, numerical culture of today. Becoming extensions of the computer or the Internet can only make matters worse. It is fashionable to write about a completely mechanized future replete with robots and computer terminals, but it lacks a critical sense of what this means for human beings. We are not robots that can only perform the tasks for which they have been programmed to do. Our humanness rests in our authenticity to be ourselves, doing what comes from inside, certainly not what some machine out there forces us to become. It is unfortunate to see good thinkers like Brooks write as if the computerized world of the future is inevitable and we can be taught to live within it. Not much of a life without authenticity and care.

Such a world may well come to be; we do seem to be headed that way. But we do not have to become robots, real or metaphorical. To whatever skill sets these writers anticipate we will need, they can and should add something related to the need to remain human beings. We have already lost in our modern culture much of our understanding of what this means and how to act accordingly, but we can recover a consciousness of that understanding with help. I have used “connectors” here as one way to make that point. Whatever we do to adapt to the future must include some means to recover and sustain our human essence, that of caring. If we do not, the future of Homo sapiens is more likely to be resemble the condition Brooks and Cowen (who he quotes, above) describe.

Please Mr. Brooks and others like Cowen, when you write about our future, do not take such a inhuman world for granted. It may be a stretch for you, but try to think about the idea that “connectors” conveys, and add your own means for “humanizing” to your work. Those of us who are trying to recover what being human means so that we may flourish can use all the help we can get.