Miércoles 12 de Julio de 2006, Ip nº 161

Beyond technology
Por Michael Hill

The future, as we all know, will belong to the techno-savvy whizzes who can write computer programming code in their sleep. According to this conventional wisdom, the health of our economy depends on educating a new cadre of technocrats and engineers ready to do battle for the U.S. in the digital wars.

That's hogwash, says, among others, author Dan Pink, whose book A Whole New Mind draws up a very different blueprint for economic success in the 21st century.

"We tend to obsess on high tech, high tech, high tech," he says. "In some ways, that's fighting the last war."

Pink says that in that last war, success was associated with the logical functions associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, things like "being able to do a spreadsheet, ace the SAT, zero in on the right answers.

"Those abilities might be necessary, but they are not sufficient," he says. "It's the other kind of abilities, right-brained abilities - artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking - that give you skills that are hard to outsource and even harder to automate."

The idea is that the computer-based, Internet-connected, digital technology is now a given, a platform that can largely be constructed and maintained either by relatively cheap overseas labor or, even more cheaply, by computers themselves. So there is not going to be much future in learning how to build that platform.

There will still be a few out on the edge, using right-brain skills to envision real advances in the technological infrastructure. But most of the money is going to be made by those who put something interesting and desirable on top of that platform. It's akin to when everyone in the country got a television - the big money wasn't in building the sets, it was in making the programs that were shown on them.

It's an idea that's catching on with more and more educational leaders.

"We are realizing that the technology will take care of itself," says Kevin Manning, president of Villa Julie College. "The real question is how to use the technology in a significant way."

President Freeman A. Hrabowski III of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a trained mathematician who is usually bragging on the scientists UMBC is turning out, likes to talk this year about the classics scholar who is off to Oxford for graduate study.

"Certainly, you need students to be comfortable with technology, and we certainly need more scientists," says Hrabowski, who cites the influence of Pink's book. "But we need people who are broad thinkers.

"And part of that breadth comes from taking humanities and social sciences," he says. "There needs to be more emphasis on the importance of literature and philosophy and the arts more than ever before, as there is more and more interaction between humanity and technology."

Pink puts it succinctly.

"The M.F.A. will be the M.B.A. of the future," he says, predicting that the basic arts school graduate degree, the master of fine arts, will have more value in this new economy than what is now considered an imprimatur needed for success in the business world, the master of business administration.

This theory is being put into practice at the University of Baltimore in a program designed to train people for jobs in one of the big employers of the new digital economy - the computer game industry. Maryland is a major center of this industry.

Kathleen Harmeyer, the director of the simulation and digital degree program at UB, says that the first thing industry employers told her was that they didn't need computer science majors. The people attracted to the profession are already techno-literate. Harmeyer refers to them as "digital natives," those who grew up with this technology, as opposed to people her age, who are "digital immigrants."

As Pink says, he is old enough to remember when people put "computer skills" on resumes.

"If you did that today, you would be disqualified, not qualified," he says. "It would be like putting down 'pencil skills' 60 years ago. When high-tech ability becomes ubiquitous, it does not have economic value."

What Harmeyer says the computer game industry needs is people to come up with story lines and characters and artistic ideas, to think about the psychology of what gets a player involved in a game, and other things rarely taught in a computer programming course.

"You need a broad, liberal education," she says. "You need to know everything - most of all, how to get along with people, because being in a service economy, you are always working with three other people or 10 other people. If you can't get along with people, you are out."

The students in the UB program take game development courses that teach some computer skills, Harmeyer says, but they are also required to take mythology - the source of many game characters.

"They need a broad base of information," she says. "We make sure they have history, philosophy, sociology, psychology."

The students take art courses at nearby Maryland Institute College of Art. "Art is key," Harmeyer says. "Art and design is what the player sees first. They can either be engaged or turned off by that."

As Pink would point out, art and design are not courses taught in business school.

Deb Tillet, president of BreakAway Ltd., a Hunt Valley-based computer game and simulation company, says that many of her company's hires come out of MICA.

"A lot of what we do in computer games and across the board to the more serious side of computer visualizations requires 3-D graphic artists," she says. "So we have MICA graduates who have taken courses in using computers to create art, but who are also classically trained in art.

"We also have historians and writers and any manner of folks who design and create stories around our computer games," she says. "There are a lot of people with music backgrounds."

Tillet says that the U.S. leads the world in computer games for the same reason Hollywood leads in movies.

"It goes back to something de Tocqueville says about individuality in American culture being unlike any other," she says. "You can outsource the art when it becomes rote or production-like. You need to create certain pieces of programming, but that can essentially be a learned skill.

"What you need are creativity, innovation and individuality," she says. "Those are the people we are looking for, that make me stay up at night wondering where they are coming from."

Pink says that most technologically based industries are telling engineering schools the same thing. "They are saying, 'Don't give us technicians, people who only do routine work; we can send that to India. We need people who can think across disciplines.'"

Tillet says that the computer game industry was started by the same kind of people she is looking for now.

"It began with a few people who went on to be super-, super-, superstars," she says. "They followed their dream. They had a real passion for their idea, a desire that turned a few little blips on the screen into what we are now.

"They are the true heroes who started with a passion and created an industry," she says.

That speaks to another of Pink's points - that following your passion is not just a cliched recipe for a fulfilled life of dubious financial reward; it is the new path to economic security.

The reason, he says, is that if you are doing something you really care about, you are much more likely to engage your right brain and come up with the type of creative ideas that will be the desirable products of the 21st century.

"If you ask me, 'What should I study?' I would say you are asking the wrong question," Pink says. "I would say, 'Let me ask you: What do you love to do? What gives you meaning and pleasure and enjoyment?' Because that is a window into what you should be doing for a living."

So, Pink says not to become an accountant because your parents tell you it will be a good job - then, you would probably just do the rote accounting jobs that will be taken over by online services from India, or by programs like TurboTax. "But if you love accounting, then you will probably be a great accountant. You will never let the job get automatic."

In other words, you will bring to accounting a kind of creativity and inventiveness that can never be outsourced.

For instance, say you love cooking. A restaurant is a big capital investment that competes with franchises, the food equivalent of automation. But the dedicated chef can be creative.

"Not that long ago," Pink says, "people like me had never heard of a personal chef. They were something only the Rockefellers had. Now they are motoring through suburban Baltimore, delivering meals to private homes. Try outsourcing that to India."

If you are doing something you love, you will also probably bring to your job something that Pink says is invaluable in the new economy: an empathy for your clients that will make your relationship more than a simple economic transaction.

Pink says that in a world of abundance - so abundant that one huge growth industry is places to store all our excess stuff - economic success will go to those who create products that deliver more than the physical item, that give the buyer something "that satisfies the growing nonmaterial aesthetic and emotional yearnings of a very abundant age."

So we don't just buy toilet brushes, we go to Target - one of the companies that Pink says understands this new economy - and buy Michael Graves' designed toilet brushes.

"The cell phone is a perfect example," he says. "It went from a logical device to an emotional device to an aesthetic device. In some ways, cell phones are now fashion accessories. Razor cell phones sell not because they make calls better but because they look better.

"Or look at ring tones. Several billion dollars are spent on ring tones each year," Pink says. "Our grandparents would think that was crazy, but that's what happens in a world of abundance."

Pink notes that the hot things in computers right now are not new technologies but applications like MySpace. "That's not a big technological advance, but it's a big advance in giving regular folks places for self-expression."

The people who come up with these ideas, Pink says, will be the ones who have engaged the right side of their brain because they are working on something they really care about. He points to Whole Foods, selling you not just the chicken but its back story, where and how it was raised. Or Toyota, selling a hybrid that really makes no economic sense as a math problem but provides an intangible, a means of self-expression.

Apple, Virgin and JetBlue are other companies that Pink says understand this new right-brained economy. Almost all are run by individuals with distinctive personalties who have a strong sense of what they and their companies are about, the kind of love for their job that leads to the creativity needed in this new marketplace.

Manning of Villa Julie - a school with unabashed vocational aspirations for its students - talks about taking this idea into the real world with a program at that school called "career architecture."

"How do you educate someone in a specific area, knowing that all the jobs in their market will change drastically in their lifetime?" he asks. "One way is to develop this process that will help students identify what their core values are, try to help the student talk about and think about what are the things that really interest them in their lives and in their world and in their work."

Manning says that these are skills the students can "use and replicate their entire lifetimes," even as the specific skills needed for their various jobs change. And it fits into Pink's contention that if the students continue to work in jobs that mesh with their core values, they are much more likely to have successful careers in the right-brained economy.

Other basic values will grow in importance as specific skill sets have a shorter and shorter half-life. "What we talk about is teaching people how to learn, to develop a lust for learning," says UMBC's Hrabowski. "That's far more important than any particular course one might take."

And then there is the matter of learning to work in groups, the ubiquitous teams of the modern corporate world. Pink, whose previous book Free Agent Nation advocated breaking away from companies and working on your own, might prefer to put the emphasis on the importance of empathy in terms of understanding your clients and customers.

In either case, Harmeyer says the lessons are old ones.

"A lot of it is what we were taught growing up," she says of those raised in a previous generation. "I am noticing that basic politeness is something that is not taught today, but that is number one for anyone on a team. You can't have a Jerry Springer encounter, but that's what they see on TV. If you have screamers on a team, nothing gets done."

So, where you used to put "Computer skills" on the resume, insert "Plays well with others."

  02/07/2006. The Baltimore Sun.