The Conceptual Age?

Revenge of the Right Brain

I started reading the wired magazine article titled Revenge of the Right Brain and it all made quite a bit of sense. I'm not so sure about the division of Left and Right brain, its all subjective in my mind but the fact is the examples Daniel gives are pretty crediable. I will quote the Asia example.

Few issues today spark more controversy than outsourcing. Those squadrons of white-collar workers in India, the Philippines, and China are scaring the bejesus out of software jockeys across North America and Europe. According to Forrester Research, 1 in 9 jobs in the US information technology industry will move overseas by 2010. And it's not just tech work. Visit India's office parks and you'll see chartered accountants preparing American tax returns, lawyers researching American lawsuits, and radiologists reading CAT scans for US hospitals.

The reality behind the alarm is this: Outsourcing to Asia is overhyped in the short term, but underhyped in the long term. We're not all going to lose our jobs tomorrow. (The total number of jobs lost to offshoring so far represents less than 1 percent of the US labor force.) But as the cost of communicating with the other side of the globe falls essentially to zero, as India becomes (by 2010) the country with the most English speakers in the world, and as developing nations continue to mint millions of extremely capable knowledge workers, the professional lives of people in the West will change dramatically. If number crunching, chart reading, and code writing can be done for a lot less overseas and delivered to clients instantly via fiber-optic cable, that's where the work will go.

But these gusts of comparative advantage are blowing away only certain kinds of white-collar jobs – those that can be reduced to a set of rules, routines, and instructions. That's why narrow left-brain work such as basic computer coding, accounting, legal research, and financial analysis is migrating across the oceans. But that's also why plenty of opportunities remain for people and companies doing less routine work – programmers who can design entire systems, accountants who serve as life planners, and bankers expert less in the intricacies of Excel than in the art of the deal. Now that foreigners can do left-brain work cheaper, we in the US must do right-brain work better.

Last century, machines proved they could replace human muscle. This century, technologies are proving they can outperform human left brains – they can execute sequential, reductive, computational work better, faster, and more accurately than even those with the highest IQs. (Just ask chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.)

And while reading the article I started thinking about a conversation I had the other day with a Imperial software engineering student and Stefan Magdalinski who wrote (which I love and use everyday to see what my MP is up to). Anyhow this student was talking about the fact that he optimised some code to use the smallest amount of memory needed for the application he was building. Stefan kept interupting and pointing out that he was unemployable. The only place where such skills are important is on the SIM card of phones. Everything else has tons of memory, hard drive space and processing power. So why bother? The details are not important anymore as such. I added a section of talk around web2.0, webservices and how open API's allow you to delegate processing to 3rd parties. Why build a TV listings system when you could use someone elses? By the way the event I was actually at Openknowledge forum was great. It also illustrates the fact that we are moving from a information age to a conceptual age. On the Tube home the guys behind Public Whip and Stefan talked about the fact all the information was now available to them and the public its where we go from here. From information to conceptual? Maybe? Back to the article for another quote.

Even computer programmers may feel the pinch. “In the old days,” legendary computer scientist Vernor Vinge has said, “anybody with even routine skills could get a job as a programmer. That isn't true anymore. The routine functions are increasingly being turned over to machines.” The result: As the scut work gets offloaded, engineers will have to master different aptitudes, relying more on creativity than competence.

Any job that can be reduced to a set of rules is at risk. If a $500-a-month accountant in India doesn't swipe your accounting job, TurboTax will. Now that computers can emulate left-hemisphere skills, we'll have to rely ever more on our right hemispheres.

And in the change over – comes people like me. My background is from design not programming but tools like xml, webservices, etc make creating applications for the web a conceptual challenge rather than a programatic one. If I want to add internal search to my site I would just download Lucene and the rest would be just details which I could pay someone else to do or work it out over time with the huge resource of the web at hand. Anyhow Daniel leaves the article with good reminder of the main points.

Want to get ahead today? Forget what your parents told you. Instead, do something foreigners can't do cheaper. Something computers can't do faster. And something that fills one of the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age. In other words, go right, young man and woman, go right.

Ok I spoke to Miles today on IM and actually he makes some very good points about the outlook and underline issues of this article. I had to share it with everyone as it makes you think about the article in a different way.

[17:12:02] miles> I see you're posting that racist left/right brain crap on your blog
[17:12:37] myself> well i dont really believe it myself which i thought I'd made clear, but maybe not. but you know your going to have to explain now
[17:14:29] miles> You seemed ambivalent about the biology (which is just wrong – left/right brain is a biological fact), but offered no comment on the suggestion that asians could only do left-brain logical work, whilst creative work was still the province of the white man. As we see creativity as having higher value than logical work, this is tantamount to a racist statement, it seems to me
[17:15:17] myself> not really thought about it that way, but yes i do see what you mean now
[17:19:00] miles> Seems like the worst kind of racism – like social darwinism. The left/right is to do with the way the brain is organised physically. This has lead to a load of NLP-style babble about how some people are more left or right brained (little proof of this, though some evidence there is a gender split), from this, people have jumped to left or right brained cultures (no evidence of this at all), and it is frequently suggested that asian cultures are left-brained. That's why there's no such thing as Indian, Chinese or Japanese art. Which means I didn't visit the Asian Art Museum here in San Francisco, because it can't possibly exist.
[17:22:12] miles> Most of the left/right culture thinking comes from a failure to appreciate economics. I think
[17:22:28] myself> how do you mean?
[17:23:12] miles> It is relatively easy for western companies to sell into developing markets in Asia because western goods are seen as desirable simply because they come from the west – asian consumers like the cachet value of them. On the other hand, outside of niche handicrafts products or henna or what have you, western consumers tend to view asian products with suspicion, except for established brands like Sony or Toyota
[17:24:34] miles> Who would buy an Indra Enterprises MP3 player?
[17:24:42] myself> no one, in the west at least
[17:25:45] miles> When Asian businesses research the western market and produce products that the west wants to buy, they are accused of being un-innovative, because they ape already successful western products (eg Toyata didn't invent the SUV, American car companies did, but Toyota built a better SUV, and now dominate the market)
[17:26:13] myself> now thats very true
[17:27:35] miles> In fact, Asian businesses are not being un-innovative, they are simply doing market research – identifying what sells, and making it better and cheaper. This has nothing to do with innovation, it's to do with business. It's like claiming Chinese instructions on a western-made product for sale in China are not innovative because the Chinese already invented Chinese
[17:28:08] myself> /images/emoticons/happy.gif
[17:29:10] miles> Asian businesses need to take this strategy because they are at a disadvantage in western markets – only as they grow, and increase their capitalisation, and develop their overseas offices will they have the awareness of western markets to be able to set trends.
[17:29:37] miles> So, for example, Sony is now able to be a global trend-setter because of its size and reach
[17:30:01] myself> true
[17:31:03] miles> Indra Enterprises is going to have to follow trends – or hire western product designers – for some time. It might well not choose to do the latter, because of the high cash risk of launching a product in a developed market – the advertising budget needed might be actually more than Indra Enterprises's.

And in short, Miles is right. I need to say I'm never a believer of the classification of humans and personality types. I believe there are enough conridictions to make the whole classification useless. However, there is this underline theme that western markets will be right brain thinkers and the eastern markets are left. And I'm sorry but yes that sounds like racism to me too. I'm sure Daniel isnt a racist (sure Miles thinks the same) but this division is fundimentally wrong.
I remember in the 1800's that it was widely accepted that different people see colours differently. So a bunch of Camridge prof's went to islands near Australia headed by William Rivers to prove that Blacks could see more colours than Europeans which at the time would mean they had the same colour depth as animals, which of course would prove to the racist of the time that there was a difference between Blacks and Whites. So anyhow William Rivers done many colour tests on the natives of the islands and came to the conclusion that actually most people see things in mostly the same way. And then to his credit, he started many movements when he came back to england to tell the world of his findings. Even thought european colour theory at the time was proven wrong.

Is the left brain right brain theorys any different from european colour theory from the 1800's?

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Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.