Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Let the united of mind unite

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, modes of thought, business

I make mobiles from time to time. One (see below) consists of nine open, inversely stellated polyhedra on wires and strings, so they rotate and revolve in the breeze from the ventilation system. The polyhedra exemplify extreme mathematical rigor. So does the careful layout of the wires' lengths so that no two shapes can ever collide. They are painted bright colors, and the colors plus the shifting relationships among them exemplify nondeterminism, holism, and beauty.

This mobile came to mind as I was reading the second chapter of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink. Personally, I think the subtitle undermines the author's message, so I hope it was forced upon him by an editor, and is not his own choice.

The appropriate message is conveyed by the main title: a whole mind. The mental landscape of Western culture has increasingly polarized itself into the camps of the linear, bottom-line thinkers that run our corporations and governments, and of intuitive, excellence-driven artists of all kinds.

It has been my observation that scientists and other highly technical people have a strong affinity for the arts and tend to prefer excellence to more "bottom-line" orientation. Their love of beauty and high performance trumps their love of money. On the other hand, those who rise high in management typically find it hard to manage people who are not driven by money, and are suspicious of them.

Thus, it is refreshing to find that Sidney Harman, in Mind Your Own Business, has written that he disdains hiring MBAs, saying, "Get me some poets as managers." Harman made his millions as a top executive by following his own advice (This is also comforting to this father of a college-bound son who has recently expressed the aspiration to become a poet!).

Dan Pink points out that linearly technical work such as computer programming, accounting, and law clerkship have become commodities. Many corporations (including the one I work for) outsource most such tasks, either to specialty contract firms or to overseas contractor "tanks"...I've called them "mental Maquiladoras", but an equivalent term in Hindi or Chinese would serve better. In fact, some companies have set up research facilities in China, where research scientists can live well on a tenth or less what an American researcher expects to earn.

The author uses the terms L-directed and R-directed to refer to modes of though that are characteristic of the left and right hemispheres of the human brain. These are more accurate than "left-brain" or "right-brain". I'll shorten them to LD and RD.

LD thinking has led to great material abundance in the Western world and those parts of Asia and Africa that have embraced Western ways, at least partially. A major element has been increasing automation of production. Today, most of the welding of auto frames and bodies, for example, is done by graceful robotic arms. Seeing them in action is enthralling.

The great expansion of Western-style education, particularly in India and China, has produced huge numbers of well-educated LD thinkers, who are accustomed to a level of affluence their parents simply goggle at, but which can be had in their home countries for much, much less than in Europe or North America. The LD mind has become a commodity.

These three factors—Abundance, Automation, and Asia—have put us in the midst of a sea change. To me, the key factor is Automation. More and more formerly "mental" tasks are being automated. Among my work acquaintances, I number a group that performs legal discovery using automated searching. Litigation costs are thus dropping fast. Other friends at several small companies composed of Indians from Hyderabad (their office language is Telegu) are making a bundle doing the meta-programming for a decision-support system that writes the programs automatically.

But what is going on here? The legal discovery searching software is directed by lists of terms and words proposed by the lawyers, turned into "synonym rings" and other conceptual terms by the search team. This is an RD activity; not only is there no software to perform it, it is unlikely that such software could ever be developed. It isn't "linear enough" to write a program to do so. Also, when my Telegu-speaking friends prepare the meta-programs that drive the program-writing software, they are doing RD tasks. It still takes a human to have the idea and to design a solution. And those humans need a fundamental understanding of the LD stuff to do their RD stuff well.

This is what A Whole New Mind is really about. Pink focuses on "six senses" that he consides essential to future productive work: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Together, these form, in my mind, the "alternative bottom line" that is required for 21st Century firms to prosper. Each "sense" elaborates into a chapter, including a section of resources for expanding our skills in each.

RD skills, by themselves, reside in a brain hemisphere that is illiterate, innumerate, and simultaneous (it cannot understand sequence). The opposite hemisphere, by contrast, cannot recognize faces or the expressions on them, cannot "get" a joke, and is easily derailed by every fork in the path. In one place, Pink writes, "...yin always needs yang." His LD education is showing; he ought to have written, "yin and yang require one another".

Back to my mobile. The shapes slowly spin and grandly swoop past one another. Though their motions are mathematically "chaotic," they are constrained. Together, the rigid shapes and their fluid relationships produce a wholeness and beauty that far exceeds that of the shapes "on the shelf."

No comments: