Bobo has been reading again, alas. He read a book by somebody named Tyler Cowen. He now has extruded something called “Thinking for the Future” in which he has a question: What modes of thought will be most valuable in a future economy defined by machine intelligence? “Karen Garcia” of New Paltz, NY begins her comment on this thusly: “So now David Brooks is shilling for the Koch Brothers. Tyler Cowen, author of the book that he’s salivating over, runs the libertarian think tank known as the Mercatus Center. Founded and funded by the Koch Family to the tune of almost $30 million, it’s been called ‘Ground Zero for deregulation policy in Washington’.” Maybe he’s also reading Philip K. Dick… Mr. Cohen, in “The Beast in India’s Midst,” says a prominent feminist journalist is hounded in the most talked-about rape case in India. Mr. Nocera considers “The Berkley Model” and says a look at the elite California university raises broader questions about education and the middle class. Mr. Bruni, in “The Sweet Caress of Cyberspace,” says technology at once validates and erases us, blurring the line between flesh and figment. Cripes, they’re all reading Dick… Here’s Bobo:
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.”
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.
Freestylers. As Cowen notes, there’s a style of chess in which people don’t play against the computer but with the computer. They let the computer program make most of the moves, but, occasionally, they overrule it. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of the program and the strengths and weaknesses of their own intuition, and, ideally, they grab the best of both.
This skill requires humility (most of the time) and self-confidence (rarely). It’s the kind of skill you use to overrule your GPS system when you’re driving in a familiar neighborhood but defer to it in strange surroundings. It is the sort of skill a doctor uses when deferring to or overruling a diagnostic test. It’s the skill of knowing when an individual case is following predictable patterns and when there are signs it is diverging from 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.
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).
Conceptual engineers. Google presents prospective employees with challenges like the following: How many times in a day do a clock’s hands overlap? Or: Figure out the highest floor of a 100-story building you can drop an egg from without it breaking. How many drops do you need to figure this out? You can break two eggs in the process.
They are looking for the ability to come up with creative methods to think about unexpected problems.
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.
Moralizers. Mechanical intelligence wants to be efficient. It will occasionally undervalue essential moral traits, like loyalty. Soon, performance metrics will increasingly score individual employees. A moralizing manager will insist that human beings can’t be reduced to the statistical line. A company without a self-conscious moralizer will reduce human interaction to the cash nexus and end up destroying morale and social capital.
Greeters. An economy that is based on mechanized intelligence is likely to be a wildly unequal economy, even if the government tries to combat that inequality. Cowen estimates that perhaps 15 percent of workers will thrive, with plenty of disposable income. There will be intense competition for these people’s attention. They will favor restaurants, hotels, law firms, foundations and financial institutions where they are greeted by someone who knows their name. People with this capacity for high-end service, and flattery, will find 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.
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.
Wow. Mittens got crucified for talking about the 47%, and here’s Bobo positing it’s really 85%… Next up we have Mr. Cohen, writing from New Delhi:
About a month ago Shoma Chaudhury, a feminist journalist of considerable renown, moderated a panel entitled “The Beast in Our Midst: Rape Survivors Speak Their Stories” at the annual ideas festival of her magazine, Tehelka. The symposium in Goa was attended by Robert De Niro, among other luminaries.
Today, Chaudhury, who was the managing editor of a publication revered in Indian liberal circles for its exposés of political corruption, has quit her job, had her Delhi home defaced by an angry mob, been pilloried for supposedly acting as an accomplice to rape, and, in her own words in an email to the editor in chief of The Hindustan Times, “been lynched by the media for things I did not do, vilified on the basis of half-truths and fictions.”
Chaudhury’s story is a troubling one of an India that has awoken with fierce indignation to the issue of predatory sexual violence over the past year, ever since a 23-year-old student in Delhi died after being gang-raped on a bus.
A further gang-rape case in Mumbai involving slum-dwelling young men on a casual “hunt” for a victim has fueled a debate in which India’s fast-changing sexual mores, Bollywood’s portrayal of women as sex objects, encrusted male attitudes of entitlement and old habits of concealment have all figured. Tehelka, under Chaudhury’s editorship, has been a prominent voice for women’s rights.
A colossal political and media outcry has now engulfed her life. This much is clear in the storm. Ten days after the Goa festival, a young Tehelka journalist (who had been detailed to chaperone De Niro) sent Chaudhury a complaint accusing the magazine’s founder and editor in chief, Tarun Tejpal, of sexually assaulting her twice in an elevator on Nov. 7 and 8. Tejpal is a charismatic figure whose investigative journalism has earned him many political enemies and near legendary status among India’s intellectual elite. The young woman’s Nov. 18 email to Chaudhury alleged that he had finger-penetrated her and left her “in a completely distraught condition.” It demanded “at the very least” that she receive “a written apology from Mr. Tejpal,” according to a copy provided to me.
Chaudhury, having spoken to Tejpal, promptly responded, saying she felt “my breath has been knocked out of me” and assuring the journalist that the editor in chief was “absolutely willing” to provide the requested apology.
The reply from the journalist, entitled “Request for Closure,” said: “I need closure on this — I need a written apology to me for his physical misconduct on two separate occasions. I need an acknowledgment of the same sent to the staff and bureau. I also need Tehelka to set up an anti-sexual harassment cell.” In a further email the next day she stipulated that the apology from Tejpal must include admission of “sexual molestation on two separate occasions despite repeatedly and clearly being asked to stop.”
It seems clear that, at a small magazine that was family to its staff, faced by a traumatic incident involving two people she was close to, Chaudhury was scrambling, as requested, to deal with the matter internally.
Within hours, on Nov. 19, Tejpal apologized “unconditionally” to the journalist in an email that referred to “a moment of insanity” but left her deeply dissatisfied. The next day he announced he would step down for six months.
Chaudhury forwarded his announcement to the magazine staff. She included a brief cover note alluding to Tejpal’s abject apology for “an untoward incident,” a phrase she acknowledges may have looked too mild. Minutes later all hell broke loose — and has scarcely abated since.
The Goa police and government led by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party — frequently the target of the magazine’s exposés — responded with rare zeal smacking of political vendetta for a Tehelka investigation that led to the resignation in 2001 of the then-defense minister from a coalition headed by the party.
A criminal investigation was ordered. Chaudhury has been attacked for failing to report the incident to the police immediately, attempting a cover-up, trying to smear the journalist (a grotesque allegation) and betraying her feminist principles. She quit. The young woman, distraught and traumatized, also quit. The magazine is adrift.
Tejpal has been arrested on charges of rape (India’s new anti-rape law passed this year expanded the definition of rape to include insertion of any body part into a woman’s vagina) and faces possible imprisonment of 10 years or more. He has denied any wrongdoing. But of course his letter of apology now represents a potential self-incriminating confession.
Something has gone very wrong here. An unconscionable and criminal act may well have occurred on that elevator. That will be for a court to settle. But already, in an overheated media witch hunt, Tejpal has become “the rapist”; truth looks like a hostage to a new Indian political correctness and to old political scores; and an honorable, talented, crusading journalist, Shoma Chaudhury, has been misrepresented, hounded and ruined.
Next up we have Mr. Nocera:
Fred Wiseman is the grand old man of documentary filmmaking. Over the course of his long career, he has made 41 movies, the vast majority of them documentaries. They tend to share certain traits. They are often quite long. They rely entirely on dialogue: Wiseman never uses narration in his documentaries. And they often focus on institutions. Wiseman has done films about a mental hospital (“Titicut Follies”), a police precinct (“Law and Order”), and a high school (“High School”). Some of his films have the force of an exposé; others impart the documentary equivalent of a big wet kiss.
Wiseman’s latest film falls into the second category. Entitled “At Berkeley” — and running some four hours long — it attempts to do nothing less than capture the breadth of activities at the University of California, Berkeley, probably the finest public university in the country. When I asked Wiseman recently what he hoped viewers would get out of the film, he said, “I hope they come away with a feeling that it is a great university, run by people of intelligence and sensitivity, and working hard to maintain standards and integrity.”
That comes through loud and clear. We watch a doctoral candidate who appears to have designed an apparatus allowing a paraplegic to walk. (At least that’s what it looks like; sometimes a little narration would help.) An English professor teaches Thoreau. A string quartet plays. A field hockey team scores a goal. Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, engagingly teaches a class. And so on.
In the forthcoming issue of the Carnegie Reporter, my friend Nicholas Lemann has a wonderful essay about the dual — and in some ways, conflicting — roles of the American university. One role is mass higher education, which is “mainly concerned with teaching.” The other role is high-end research, in which tenured faculty “pursue knowledge and understanding without the constraints of immediate practical applicability,” as Lemann puts it. “At Berkeley” has plenty of scenes of both — but never stops to contemplate whether this is still the best way to run a public university.
The reason that is a question worth asking is that the real story being told in “At Berkeley” is about money. In the fall of 2011, when Wiseman was filming, the university was going through a brutal time. State funding had dropped from some 40 percent of its budget not all that many years earlier, to just to 16 percent in 2011. This school that had once been quite affordable for its students — like the rest of the California university system — now costs $33,000 a year for California residents, including room and board.
Thus there are scenes of meetings in which administrators talk about imposing centralized purchasing on the faculty. Students furious about increasing tuition and fee increases occupy a library. A faculty member tells her class how outraged she was that a $6,000 “discretionary fee” was being added to several graduate programs. In one scene, administrators talk about their new push to find students in Asia; what is not said is that at a school where 40 percent of students still pay very little — because they are poor and can get scholarships — the Asian students are likely to pay the sticker price.
Throughout the film, the university’s then-chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, laments the plight of the middle-class student — students whose parents make too much money to get them financial aid, but who fundamentally can’t afford to go there. Implicitly, Wiseman is asking whether, for all its dazzling breadth, Berkeley can still be that first step on the ladder of upward mobility for California’s middle class, which is what the university system was originally designed to do.
Berkeley, however, is the wrong place to find that answer. Just in the two years since Wiseman stopped filming, the school has raised $3 billion, while handling, last year, 67,650 applications, the most in its history. Its status as one of the country’s elite universities means that it is not forced to ask any financial question tougher than whether faculty members will go along with centralized purchasing. (It has also since begun a financial aid program for middle-class students.)
It’s the other schools in the California system where the harder questions about the role of a public university need to be asked. Like Berkeley, they have seen their state funding slashed. But unlike Berkeley, it hasn’t been so easy for them to bounce back. Should they use more online courses? Change their mix of research and teaching? Aim for the same students as Berkeley, or focus on educating the middle class? The real issue is: how do you make college affordable again?
Berkeley, being Berkeley, will do just fine. But unless everyone else in higher education takes a hard look at their model, the promise of higher education as the means to upward mobility will continue to diminish.
It pretty much already has, Joey. Go read Bobo — only the top 15% really need to be educated after all. The rest are all supposed to be “economizers” and drones. Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
For a while I worried that my father was having a thing with his GPS.
He seldom referred to the navigational instrument, which issued instructions in a feminine monotone, as “it.” He said “she” and “her.” He got a kick out of predicting exactly when she’d pipe up and what her advice would be, and he alternately complimented himself on his obedience and crowed over his defiance.
“She’s not going to like this,” he’d trumpet as he played the rebel, going straight instead of left.
“Recalculating,” she’d sigh, and he’d laugh mischievously.
I thought of them when I saw “Her,” a new movie that opens in major cities next week.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man in love with the operating system for his smartphone-esque device, a sexy Siri that — or should I say who? — tells him not only when he has mail but what a terrific male he is, and does this in Scarlett Johansson’s come-hither coo. There was much fuss recently over the decision that Johansson was ineligible for the Golden Globes: Should a disembodied voice’s contribution be regarded as any less real than a visible, palpable person’s? The debate echoed questions in the movie itself, which was written and directed by Spike Jonze and was just named the best picture of 2013 by both the National Board of Review and (in a tie with “Gravity”) the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
“Her” is sure to be a talker. Set perhaps a few decades from now, when Los Angeles has sprouted so many skyscrapers that it resembles Shanghai, the story is in one sense absurdist. Man and operating system spend a warm day at the beach. Man and operating system spend a hot night in bed.
But it simultaneously feels like the logical extrapolation of the way we log in now, and it’s an all-you-can-eat allegory buffet. Choose your metaphor or cautionary tale — about the seductions of cyberspace; about how physically disconnected we are; about the shifting terms of intimacy — and it’s here in abundance, first and second and third helpings of it.
I savored a few themes in particular. One is the Internet’s extreme indulgence of the seemingly innate human impulse to contrive a habitat that’s entirely unthreatening, an ego-stroking ecosystem, a sensibility-controlled comfort zone.
You want an endless stream of irony? You can have an endless stream of irony. You want unfettered invective about the politicians you’ve decided to hate? Set your bookmarks and social-media feeds accordingly. You can frolic endlessly in foregone conclusions. You can revel in the anecdotes that affirm your cynicism or articulate your fantasies, gullibly believing what’s actually performance art, like a young television producer’s tweet-by-tweet account of his smackdown of an annoying fellow passenger on a Thanksgiving flight. He was briefly a hero, his valor gone viral, until he revealed that he’d made the whole thing up.
In “Her,” the very nature of Johansson’s operating system is to adapt to and evolve from her interactions with Phoenix. She’s a projection of his needs. She blooms in accordance with his wants (and has an aurally explosive orgasm on cue). He needn’t doubt himself, compromise or color outside the lines. “Her” takes what’s happening in American politics and so much of American culture and transfers it to the realm of romance.
It’s a parable of narcissism in the digital world, which lets you sprint to the foreground of everything, giving you an audience or the illusion of one. To monitor Facebook or Twitter right after Nelson Mandela’s death last week was to be struck by how many people weren’t so much passing along the news as laying claim to it: Here’s what I thought of him. Here’s when I intersected with him. Here’s the personal reverberation.
But “Her” also traces the flip side of the coin — that with our amassed knowledge and scientific accomplishments, we may be succeeding in rendering ourselves obsolete. Around the same time that I saw the movie, Jeff Bezos sketched out his plans for delivery by drone. The Times published a front-page account of Google’s grand designs for robots in manufacturing and shipping. And a video producer I know returned from a shoot at a food production plant shocked that she hadn’t laid eyes on many people. Just a small posse of engineers and a slew of machines.
Economists have sounded the alarm about what this could mean for employment and the distribution of wealth. It falls to artists to contemplate what this could mean for psyches and souls, and “Her” imagines a society in which human beings are so thoroughly marginalized that they’re being edited out of courtship and companionship, because they’re superfluous, messy. It’s a love story as horror story. If we no longer need anyone in the passenger seat, do we need anyone at all?