Thinking for the Future

by on December 10, 2013 at 2:22 pm in Books, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is the new and very good David Brooks column about Average is Over.  Here is one excerpt:

So our challenge for the day is to think of exactly which mental abilities complement mechanized intelligence. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few mental types that will probably thrive in the years ahead.

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.

Humanizers. People evolved to relate to people. Humanizers take the interplay between man and machine and make it feel more natural. Steve Jobs did this by making each Apple product feel like nontechnological artifact. Someday a genius is going to take customer service phone trees and make them more human. Someday a retail genius is going to figure out where customers probably want automated checkout (the drugstore) and where they want the longer human interaction (the grocery store).

Motivators. Millions of people begin online courses, but very few actually finish them. I suspect that’s because most students are not motivated to impress a computer the way they may be motivated to impress a human professor. Managers who can motivate supreme effort in a machine-dominated environment are going to be valuable.

Do read the whole thing.

Doug December 10, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Huh? Who wants a longer human interaction at the grocery store? To the extent self checkout at grocery stores isn’t working (and my observation is that its working fairly well at the grocery stores I go to), I think people just want easier and faster, and the current slate of automated check outs don’t always deliver–especially on the easier front. If you could truly automate checkout (i.e. eliminate scanning and bagging and automate fresh fruit and vegetable purchases) hardly anyone would go to the manned lines.

F. Lynx Pardinus December 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm

I have friends who live near LA who seem to like Amazon Fresh.

Brian December 10, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Yes, our neighbors use it, and we plan to migrate to it as well. With a minimum order of $35, the delivery is no additional charge.

Kaleb December 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I would imagine at some point we’ll actually be automating grocery shopping, let alone the checkout.

ummm December 10, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Then you need new employees to help customers with the machines, help customers that may be unable to opperate the machines, fix the machines, and prevent stealing

Mark Thorson December 10, 2013 at 5:25 pm

I very much do not like it when I am delayed by the checker yakking it up with the customers ahead of me. And, I do not appreciate unnecessary interaction with the checker myself. But I do not like automated checkstands either, and much prefer a human checker. I’m not sure why — maybe I’m just an old fossil set in my ways. It seems to me like too much of the honor system. I don’t think I would like a store where there was a sign that said to figure out how much you owe and put the money in this dish. If the sign said to figure out how much you think is fair, I would like that even less.

On the other hand, my dad would sometimes tell about the time when he was a paper boy in Minneapolis in the 1930′s. In addition to delivering papers to subscribers, he also would put out a stack of papers with a dish to collect the money. That system worked very well — he didn’t lose any money that way.

Ted December 11, 2013 at 2:09 am

Agreed, hundreds of hours lost per lifetime, spent in waiting. Is it pleasant? No.

The next step, of course, is that your house knows when you use stuff up and restocks it automatically without any human involved.

Mark Thorson December 11, 2013 at 10:36 am

So when you finally use up that last can of Chedder Cheese Soup, whoops now you’ve got a whole bunch more of it again.

ummm December 10, 2013 at 2:35 pm

anyone that is self-motivated with a strong command of the English language, writing skills, programming skills, math, physics, engineering, etc will have abundance opportunity in this century. This includes creators (web 2.0 companies), speculators (in stocks, real estate, bitcoins, commodities and buying the dips), and knowledge workers (people with STEM degrees). Look at Faceook and twitter stock up 10% in the past few days. Bitcoin & Bay Area real estate on fire. We’re seeing a concentration of wealth in the most creative areas of the country

FC December 11, 2013 at 11:36 am

Ashamed to use your own name anymore, Richard Florida?

abc December 11, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Not the way it feels if you’re trying to get a STEM job right now.

bob December 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm

It’s never a really bad century for those inheriting a large amount of capital. You just have to make sure you move before some equivalent of Castro or Attila takes over.

Rahul December 10, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Always fun thinking about the future.

OTOH, the type that mostly thrives in today’s corporate world still strongly seems either of Asslicker / Manipulator / Workoholic. Especially in middle management.

Ryan December 10, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Rahul had a bad day.

Michael December 10, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Maybe, but he’s still right.

Rahul December 11, 2013 at 12:34 am


Ray Lopez December 10, 2013 at 8:50 pm

+1 at Rahul–and the levers of power are directed, traditionally, to these B.S. middle managers.

Another category that does well is “First Mover”. Another is “Follower of First Mover”. Another is “Gatekeeper”, including “Landlord”, “Politician”. Another is “Divider of the Economic Pie” such as “Lawyer”. Another is ‘keeping old mostly unhealthy people alive in OECD countries’, aka “Doctor”.

Traditional (as of the last 200 years) society is geared towards making these people wealthy. What I propose for the next 100 years, is rewarding “inventor”. But to do so you need a stronger patent system, and I doubt society is ready for that, anymore than for smaller government.

So seems society will muddle along, wasting talent by having innovators become rent seekers, and depending on Nobel Prize type Good Samaritans for innovation–ironically these Good Samaritans are not motivated much by money as much as by fame or ‘doing the right thing’, ‘giving back to the community’, etc., which ironically they don’t teach much of in business school or econ 101 textbooks.

JJ December 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm

What he describes as “moralizer” is really useful, but it’s a terrible term and he’s doing the intuition behind it a disservice by using it.

Fred December 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Brooks forgot to include another type: “Bullshitters.” This type would include people who write columns about “synthesizers,” “humanizers,” and “motivators,” and people who write books titled things like “Average is Over.”

Mark Thorson December 10, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Let me guess. You’re a farmer. Peanut crop going to be good this year?

Thor December 10, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Nah, Fred is a “snarkster”: sits on the sidelines of history, commenting, and wondering why he’s never doing anything original.

Though there is undoubtedly an overlap between priestly caste and bullshitter.

Scrutineer December 10, 2013 at 6:30 pm
anon December 10, 2013 at 8:32 pm

“toady class”


Hunter Pritchett December 10, 2013 at 3:57 pm

And what about a more general shift to people who are good with computers? While the humanizers may have some luck in making computers more forgiving of human error, the notion of context seems very hard to program into a computer. As such people who are incredibly detail oriented–who have the patience and the ability to know exactly what it is they are trying to do and express such to a computer–are going to be more successful in using computers towards whatever goal they are trying to achieve
We wouldn’t expect people who don’t speak English to thrive in an economy where English is spoken. Why would we expect anyone who can’t speak “computer” to thrive in an economy where “computer” is spoken?

dearieme December 10, 2013 at 6:53 pm

I used to be “good with computers”. Eventually it palled. Perhaps it’s likely to, except for the anally obsessive and the somewhat autistic.

CBBB December 11, 2013 at 5:32 am

What the hell does ‘computer is spoken’ mean? This fetishing of learning how to ‘code’ as some kind of key to the future is laughable. You know what professions make the BIG money? Doctors, Corporate Lawyers, Investment Bankers, Corporate Lobbyiests, Sales and Marketing Executives – NOT, by-and-large Computer Programmers and Engineers, who are basically latter day coolies. Maybe some of these people ‘speak computer’ but it’s probably not so important.

This is also why all these MOOCs whose course content seems to be overwhelmingly focused on Math and Computer Science courses aren’t going to launch anyone (aside from maybe a tiny handful of successful software company entrepenuers) into the top earnings brackets no matter how big their motivation is.

Brian December 10, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Since the summer, I have had the hardest time finding the David Brooks’ columns. Did his column page move? Has anybody else found this a problem?

Tyler Cowen December 10, 2013 at 4:24 pm

He was on “book leave” for a while, back as of early December.

prior_approval December 11, 2013 at 2:30 am

Is that “book leave” a subtle reminder that other people write books without taking leave? In a profession where taking a semester off – with pay/benefits, of course (no one lost their health insurance coverage for that period, for example) – to write a book is considered routine (or was, when several professors at GMU did it – I still have signed copies of their work, actually).

Bill December 10, 2013 at 4:23 pm

He forgot one category: Wealthy.

Wealthy is a high predictor of wealthy. If you inherit a big amount of wealth, it is an even bigger predictor.

Why isn’t that mentioned?

JWatts December 10, 2013 at 4:52 pm

“Off the top of my head, I can think of a few mental types that will probably thrive in the years ahead.”

Maybe because Wealthy isn’t generally considered a mental type.

Bill December 10, 2013 at 5:09 pm

If you are talking about the causes of inequality, you would think you could include it.

But, if you are including only those who add value from their own effort, I suppose you are correct.

Marian Kechlibar December 11, 2013 at 4:39 am

“If you inherit a big amount of wealth, it is an even bigger predictor.”

[citation needed]

My lifetime anecdotal experience tends to disagree, especially if the recipient has never had any experience managing money. It isn’t that hard to invest away a large portion of your inherited wealth.

Ray Lopez December 10, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Brooks is right about this: “…Motivators. Millions of people begin online courses, but very few actually finish them”, when it comes to learning chess from a PC. I found my strength went up one class when I started taking lessons from a human chess player rather than a PC (which I had used for years). It’s one thing to goof off and blunder in front of a PC, where there’s no reputation at stake, but another to do so in front of your teacher, which is embarrassing. So having a human teacher motivates you, like having a coach in sports. BTW none of my chess coaches use a PC, but their moves are as strong as a PC and often the same.

PS-side note: Borislav Ivanov has just come out of retirement says Chessbase–and the chess world is at a loss… (Google him, he is a notorious chess cheater who uses wearable computers to win games illegally).

David Brooks' Son December 10, 2013 at 10:08 pm

David Brooks – Jesus Fucking Christ

Axa December 11, 2013 at 6:34 am

Ever heard about “shooting the messenger”?

mofo. December 11, 2013 at 10:06 am

In Brook’s case, im in favor of it.

Eric December 10, 2013 at 10:28 pm

I positively agree with his idea to a great extent.
In this era, we are inherently asked to do our work with certain computer skills and techniques.
Even now, I am, ironically, using the Internet to write this response.
As such, if you do not posses the required skills, then you would not obtain the chance to be recruited by jobs with specific requirement of certain computer skill sets.
Freestylers, Synthesizers and Humanizers are amongst the skills that David Brook mentioned, and acquiring these essential advantages is of utmost importance in order to gain a better standing among a sea of potential competitors.
It is logical to assume that the economy will drive out those people without the required skill set; reality is harsh on those who are unable to fend for themselves. Subsequently, they will be forced to work under dire and undesirable conditions, in jobs that they did not ask for.
All in all, preparing yourself for the future by updating yourself with the necessary tools for progress is quintessential to success and should not be overlooked.

Dan Weber December 10, 2013 at 10:35 pm

He mentions google using various algorithmic questions, but I’m not sure they still do. They have done big data on their own hiring and found very few of the tests they anticipated to predict job performance didn’t.

The story has also been blown out of proportion by people who think that interview questions are 100% completely useless, but the article (widespread news a few months ago, possibly even linked to from MR) only said they found “brain-teaser” questions to be useless.

harryh December 11, 2013 at 12:51 am

That whole bit on Google is an Urban Legend. Google has never interviewed that way.

go December 11, 2013 at 12:15 am

That’s funny, those qualities that Brooks lists are quite literally the hiring criteria for the top-tier management consultancies (McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Bain).

Someone from the other side December 11, 2013 at 2:49 pm

As someone working for one of the above mentioned, that was something that struck me as well. Although in reality, I would replace motivators with conceptual engineers – ideally you really would want the motivators but they are a very rare breed among the people who can do all the synthesizing etc.

And if that is the standard we are judging against, I fear it will not be the 15%

prior_approval December 11, 2013 at 12:22 am

‘People evolved to relate to people.’

Why even bother to mock when the words themselves are such a brilliant example.

As is the wonderful web weaving.

Anthony Alfidi December 11, 2013 at 1:33 am

Longer human interaction makes sense right now in those retail sectors where the product must be custom fitted to each customer. High-end clothing is an example. Sporting goods may be another. This won’t last long. Retailers are deploying technology that can size clothing based on a 3D image of the wearer’s form. Instant POS checkout means a retailer can deliver a customized clothing order to the user’s home. This minimizes the need for in-store inventory and even floorspace. Retail is about to get a lot smaller and more agile thanks to machine intelligence. Oh BTW, gamification will motivate people to complete those online courses without any human motivators.

Marian Kechlibar December 11, 2013 at 4:41 am

There is a kind of vicious circle re “Motivators”.

The need for motivators isn’t anything new. But the people who would profit most from having motivators are often the ones who do not realize it.

prior_approval December 11, 2013 at 6:40 am

Or who don’t realize just how flawed that ‘motivation’ is – a certain middle European country’s experience in this regard comes to mind.

Whose desire to not experience such motivation again seems to be something of a joke among those living in a country which actually occupied that country for 5 decades. After having destroyed all of that countries major cities through years of aerial bombardment, and whose military staged the largest amphibious assault in history as simply the first step in attempting to extinguish that ‘motivation.’ Other countries with much more experience of that country’s motivation do not consider any and all efforts to keep it from reappearing something worthy to joke about.

CBBB December 11, 2013 at 7:13 am

Calm down, I live in Germany too and this country blows.

prior_approval December 11, 2013 at 2:09 pm

If you are German, I understand completely. Germans are anything but a happy go lucky group – especially when they have to be around other Germans.

If you are American, well, that is not really understandable. I know at least two American citizens very seriously thinking of becoming German citizens – both are in their early 30s, one a computer programmer, the other works in banking.

Someone from the other side December 11, 2013 at 2:52 pm

If Germany is the only place they can go to escape the IRS, I might buy that being an attractive idea. Otherwise? Not so much.

msgkings December 12, 2013 at 2:39 pm

I know of at least 300 million American citizens who have zero interest in becoming German citizens.

Marian Kechlibar December 11, 2013 at 8:01 am

I was thinking along completely different, much more personal lines… just recently, I had a personal experience with several guitar teachers, and the conclusion was that motivating teacher personality really matters.

prior_approval December 11, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Well, in a way, so was I – that motivation ran really, really deep. Admittedly, it was not one based on too many principles one would want to emulate, but the motivation ran deep and broad.

ww December 11, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Bobos are still in paradise, and, increasingly, only them.

Chloe Mickelson December 14, 2013 at 1:48 am

Preparing for the future, no matter what it brings starts off with a good education. And students should focus on their studies more. For quality essays (for applying to colleges), there’s a site which helps out, it’s

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