What are people good for, now?

David Brooks is not my favorite person. In fact, I have written five or more blog posts — not here, but on other more political blogs — fulminating about his wrongly reasoned and wrongly concluded arguments on economic and social policy.
However, once in a great while, when he turns his attention on the science of sociality — as he did in his book, The Social Animal — Brooks can demonstrate an appreciation for the deepest motivations and complexities of the human condition. He’s like a second cousin who’s a wonderful concert pianist, but sadly prone to conspiracy theories.


One of the oddities of collaboration is that tightly knit teams are not the most creative. Loosely bonded teams are, teams without a few domineering presences, teams that allow people to think alone before they share results with the group. – David Brooks

In today’s NY Times, where Brooks is a columnist, he writes about what may be the real question of our time: in a world where machines are increasingly capable of doing what many humans do for work, what work will be left for us? Or, turned around, what are humans good for, now?
A few clips from his column, suggesting areas where people will still have an edge:

[…] the age of brilliant machines seems to reward a few traits. First, it rewards enthusiasm. The amount of information in front of us is practically infinite; so is that amount of data that can be collected with new tools. The people who seem to do best possess a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity. Maybe they started with obsessive gaming sessions, or marathon all-night study sessions, but they are driven to perform extended bouts of concentration, diving into and trying to make sense of these bottomless information oceans.
[…]
Second, the era seems to reward people with extended time horizons and strategic discipline.  […] In a world of online distractions, the person who can maintain a long obedience toward a single goal, and who can filter out what is irrelevant to that goal, will obviously have enormous worth.
[…]
Third, the age seems to reward procedural architects. The giant Internet celebrities didn’t so much come up with ideas, they came up with systems in which other people could express ideas: Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc. That is to say they designed an architecture that possesses a center of gravity, but which allowed loose networks of soloists to collaborate.
One of the oddities of collaboration is that tightly knit teams are not the most creative. Loosely bonded teams are, teams without a few domineering presences, teams that allow people to think alone before they share results with the group. So a manager who can organize a decentralized network around a clear question, without letting it dissipate or clump, will have enormous value.
[…]
Fifth, essentialists will probably be rewarded. […] creativity can be described as the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.
[…]
The role of the human is not to be dispassionate, depersonalized or neutral. It is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded: the voracious lust for understanding, the enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist, the empathetic sensitivity to what will attract attention and linger in the mind.
Unable to compete when it comes to calculation, the best workers will come with heart in hand.


Our purpose as humans, today, is to come together in a cooperative association through the agency of social platforms, and increase the value of the entire network for all by concurrently pursuing both personal and common ends, and helping others to do so, too. – Stowe Boyd

Given my technology background, I would recast Brook’s third point as platforms: the social revolution online has allowed the development of platforms on which loose networks have formed. The power of loose connections is what inspired me to say, years ago, ‘I am made greater by the sum of my connections, and so are my connections’.
And Brooks is dead on that the power of the web and the future of work is about loose networks, which are capable of moving fast, and allowing participants to simultaneously pursue their solo ends and contribute to the emergent value of the connective matrix, at the same time.
So, David Brooks — of all people — asks and (almost) answers the question of our age. He asks, what are humans good for, now? And the answer: Our purpose as humans, today, is to come together in a cooperative association through the agency of social platforms, and increase the value of the entire network for all by concurrently pursuing both personal and common ends, and helping others to do so, too.