Here is an article that distills a lot of what we’ve been talking about here at EOW into two simple categories:

Physical work, which is the first work to get extensively automated and

Mental work, which is now, relatively recently, getting the same systematic treatment that older physical work has.

Here’s a paragraph that hooked me:


To be frank, I’m not that sorry for them. Over the years, I have come to realize just how many skilled white-collar professionals are just phoning it in when they go to work every day. They fill out paperwork and connect the easy dots in pre-established formulas, rather than doing original, creative, conceptual thinking. Chances are you’ve seen one of those “mystery diagnosis” shows on cable TV, the ones that tell you the story of some guy who suffers a mysterious, debilitating ailment for years before he finally finds a specialist who tells him he has some rare disease. It seems like every one of those shows begins with a doctor who listens to the patient’s symptoms, plugs them into a common, familiar, and completely wrong diagnosis, and then lets it go at that. It begins with a doctor who’s going through the motions rather than doing original thinking to solve the problem.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the falling value (and rising price) of a university diploma, and this is part of the reason for it. Much of a contemporary university education is designed to train dot-connectors, to fill students’ heads with established formulas and the received wisdom, but not to teach the kind of creative problem-solving that can only be learned, in my experience, by going beyond the canned knowledge peddled in the classroom and dealing with actual, real-world challenges.

[my emphasis]


It also strikes me how many “knowledge professionals” want to race to stuff some problem they’ve encountered into a known (to them) model or paradigm because it relates so strongly to how they make profit in their work.  The irony to me is how they racing to become…machine like.  Is it any wonder than we want the REAL machines to do more and more of these tasks?



Filed under Ron

3 responses to “Uh-Oh

  1. wj

    It sems like there is a glaring opportunity here for someone. Clearly what is needed is a way (some software, perhaps?) that can look at the results coming out of a connect-the-dots answer and say “This is insane. Someone needs to take a different approach to the issue.”

    Now granted that, as anyone who has dealt with a government bureaucracy (OK, maybe any bureaucracy) knows, there are a lot of white collar workers today who refuse to consider anything outside their rote policies and procedures. But at least the possiblity exists. And even if you only have a 50-50 chance, or a 1 in 10 chance, of getting someone who is willing to apply some judgement to the results, that possiblity is important to getting results that customers will consider acceptable.

    And judgement, AKA common sense, is what we are really talking about here. Mostly, computer programs don’t even try to apply this — even programs which represent themsleves as expert systems. And mechanical robot systems are generally incapable, even theoretically, of doing so.

    I wonder if someone could design a course of study which would cultivate a student’s ability to apply judgement to results? Now there would be an opportunity to change the world for the better!

  2. Icepick

    In the corporate world thinking outside the box, conceptual thinking, and original thought are all ways to get fired. Workers go into drone mode because they know THAT is what the bosses really want. And the bosses are that way because that’s what their bosses want. And so on and so forth up to the CEO and the Board of Directors.

    • wj

      That’s true, but only up to a point. (Note that the following deals with generalities, albeit ones I believe to be widely accurate. So there will be exceptions.)

      Consider this parallel observation: To get to be a general officer (i.e. a promotion to brigadier general, or a commodore in the navy), the way to go is to be a very conservative, by-the-book, officer. Strictly conformist. By far the vast majority who make the step are. However</strong, the officers who get promoted beyond that level are the mavericks, the guys who are definitely not by-the-book types.

      I suggest that similarly, to get promoted as a manager the way to go is generally to carefully avoid any innovation or original thinking. However, to get promoted to the very top, you are far better off being an original thinker.

      In both cases the challenge, if you want to rise to the very top, is to successfully navigate the part of the system which gives an advantage to conformity, in order to reach the level where originality is rewarded. And the reason that a lot of original thinkers start new companies is precisely that it is a difficult trick to pull off. (Too bad — or maybe not — that the military does not offer that option.)

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