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Best Business Books 2005: The Future

Mr. Pink agrees with Mr. Friedman about the reasons 20th-century knowledge workers need a new mental tool kit, although he simplifies these causes to “Asia, abundance, and automation.” The current transformation that is driven by these forces, as Mr. Pink characterizes it, is one from the information age, where analytical left-brain skills (“L-directed thinking”) such as computer programming, the law, and business administration were requisite for success, to a “conceptual age,” in which right-brained skills (“R-directed thinking”) of pattern recognition, storytelling and meaning-making, and empathy and inventiveness become paramount. Again, the metaphor for the complex changes that took Mr. Friedman 10 different “flatteners” to describe has been reduced by Mr. Pink to extreme, perhaps crippling simplicity. But I find useful Mr. Pink’s insight that the most valuable cognitive and social skills in an increasingly globalized world of many-to-many media are going to be different from those that enabled success in a world of few-to-many media.

“Design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning” are the six “essential aptitudes” — human capabilities that can be mastered through practice — that Mr. Pink offers as an appropriate mind-set for the conceptual age. His explanatory framework may be simplistic, but the essential aptitudes he describes, like Mr. Friedman’s flatteners, can help you perceive significant new forces in the world — in this case, interior forces that are to some extent under your control. Read the book quickly, try the exercises, but don’t feel the need to ponder the depths of Conceptual Age theory.

Steven Johnson probes the depths of cognitive futurism more deeply than Mr. Pink in Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (Riverhead, 2005). Mr. Johnson argues that television today is becoming more complex and requires heavier intellectual lifting than it did in the past. He also thinks that the high-resolution graphic simulations and massive multiplayer online games favored by teenage males are cognitive gymnasiums where sophisticated conceptual frameworks and exploratory methodologies attune brains to the current techno-social worldview.

The most challenging contemporary games, such as “Zelda,” “Myst,” and “Half-Life,” Mr. Johnson claims, require active exercise of “the basic procedure of the scientific method,” through the mental practice of what he names “probing,” a tactic required to test game environments in which the rules aren’t given but are meant to be puzzled out by the player (a term Mr. Johnson borrows from computer games scholar James Paul Gee). And an abstraction-juggling strategy Mr. Johnson calls “telescoping” is required when, in order to befriend the prince in “Zelda,” you must collect water in the jar the girl gave you, then water the bomb plant and use the bomb to blow up the rock that blocks the river, so you can fill the gorge and swim across to get to the top of Dragon Roost Mountain, where the prince can be found.

The mental skills of reverse-engineering the goal to learn what to do right now, probing for the hidden rules by performing experiments, and keeping in mind nested and chained sequences of procedures, Mr. Johnson asserts, are not just interesting side effects of game playing, but more nuanced versions of the kind of essential aptitudes Mr. Pink prescribes: “If you were designing a cultural form explicitly to train the cognitive muscles of the brain,” Mr. Johnson proposes, “and you had to choose between a device that trains the mind’s ability to follow narrative events, and one that enhanced the mind’s skills at probing and telescoping — well, let’s just say we’re fortunate not to have to make that choice.” Taken together, A Whole New Mind and Everything Bad Is Good for You illuminate possible ways our intellectual coping mechanisms may be changing, and point to means for augmenting and adapting our mental tool sets to deal with a changing environment. These books are not prescriptions, but exercises; not playbooks, but mental playgrounds.

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