Beyond technology

Engineering can be automated

the future belongs to artsy folks


The future, as we all know, will belong to the techno-savvy whizzes who can write computer programming code in their sleep. According to this conventional wisdom, the health of our economy depends on educating a new cadre of technocrats and engineers ready to do battle for the U.S. in the digital wars.

That's hogwash, says, among others, author Dan Pink, whose book A Whole New Mind draws up a very different blueprint for economic success in the 21st century.

"We tend to obsess on high tech, high tech, high tech," he says. "In some ways, that's fighting the last war."

Pink says that in that last war, success was associated with the logical functions associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, things like "being able to do a spreadsheet, ace the SAT, zero in on the right answers.

"Those abilities might be necessary, but they are not sufficient," he says. "It's the other kind of abilities, right-brained abilities - artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking - that give you skills that are hard to outsource and even harder to automate."

The idea is that the computer-based, Internet-connected, digital technology is now a given, a platform that can largely be constructed and maintained either by relatively cheap overseas labor or, even more cheaply, by computers themselves. So there is not going to be much future in learning how to build that platform.

There will still be a few out on the edge, using right-brain skills to envision real advances in the technological infrastructure. But most of the money is going to be made by those who put something interesting and desirable on top of that platform. It's akin to when everyone in the country got a television - the big money wasn't in building the sets, it was in making the programs that were shown on them.

It's an idea that's catching on with more and more educational leaders.

"We are realizing that the technology will take care of itself," says Kevin Manning, president of Villa Julie College. "The real question is how to use the technology in a significant way."

President Freeman A. Hrabowski III of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a trained mathematician who is usually bragging on the scientists UMBC is turning out, likes to talk this year about the classics scholar who is off to Oxford for graduate study.

"Certainly, you need students to be comfortable with technology, and we certainly need more scientists," says Hrabowski, who cites the influence of Pink's book. "But we need people who are broad thinkers.

"And part of that breadth comes from taking humanities and social sciences," he says. "There needs to be more emphasis on the importance of literature and philosophy and the arts more than ever before, as there is more and more interaction between humanity and technology."

Pink puts it succinctly.

"The M.F.A. will be the M.B.A. of the future," he says, predicting that the basic arts school graduate degree, the master of fine arts, will have more value in this new economy than what is now considered an imprimatur needed for success in the business world, the master of business administration.

This theory is being put into practice at the University of Baltimore in a program designed to train people for jobs in one of the big employers of the new digital economy - the computer game industry. Maryland is a major center of this industry.

Kathleen Harmeyer, the director of the simulation and digital degree program at UB, says that the first thing industry employers told her was that they didn't need computer science majors. The people attracted to the profession are already techno-literate. Harmeyer refers to them as "digital natives," those who grew up with this technology, as opposed to people her age, who are "digital immigrants."

As Pink says, he is old enough to remember when people put "computer skills" on resumes.

"If you did that today, you would be disqualified, not qualified," he says. "It would be like putting down `pencil skills' 60 years ago. When high-tech ability becomes ubiquitous, it does not have economic value."

What Harmeyer says the computer game industry needs is people to come up with story lines and characters and artistic ideas, to think about the psychology of what gets a player involved in a game, and other things rarely taught in a computer programming course.

"You need a broad, liberal education," she says. "You need to know everything - most of all, how to get along with people, because being in a service economy, you are always working with three other people or 10 other people. If you can't get along with people, you are out."

The students in the UB program take game development courses that teach some computer skills, Harmeyer says, but they are also required to take mythology - the source of many game characters.

"They need a broad base of information," she says. "We make sure they have history, philosophy, sociology, psychology."

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