Get Lost!

VW bug getting-lost I don't mean get lost! in the colloquial sense, I mean it literally. So much discovery, both self-discovery and scientific discovery, has happened when we were accidentally wandering down a lane we didn't intend to follow. How many charming things have you noticed when you take an unusual turn? How many epiphanies have you had when you take a walk spontaneously turning wherever you want without your nose buried in your phone's GPS? How many new stores have you discovered, even in your neighborhood, by mistake? Sir Alexander Fleming lost his way while searching for a "cure-all" drug. As he threw his experiments into the garbage, he noticed that some discarded mold was dissolving the bacteria around it. Fleming had just discovered penicillin. John Hopps, an electrical engineer, discovered the pacemaker when he got lost trying to use radio frequency heating to restore body temperature. The list goes on. Technology is getting us used to never getting lost and having a low tolerance for error. In the process we are deprived of the surprise discoveries that enrich our lives and advance civilization. In the Wall Street Journal, Daniel J. Levitin reviews a book called The Glass Cage by Nicolas Carr. Levitin writes:

"Part of the thrill of learning to fly a plane is controlling it, just as part of the thrill for a musician is learning a complex skill that allows for expressivity and meaning; we don't get that from sitting at one of those electronic keyboards that plays a bossa nova at the touch of a button. This is because doing and acting and living in the world are not all about results--it's not just about being able to get from Schenectady to Poughkeepsie, or being able to listen to a bossa nova whenever you want. It's about being able to do these things ourselves."

Two questions face us: What do we do as individuals and as parents to retain and enhance the personal growth and discovery that come from interfacing with the world directly albeit clumsily, instead of doing so perfectly but through the artificial medium of technology? Secondly, does this phenomenon give leaders of businesses and other organizations anything to be concerned about? On the individual level there is much we can do. We can have times in our homes where technology is deactivated entirely. These times could be daily, at family dinnertime for example, and weekly with one day a week when the family interfaces with one another, its friends and the world, without the interface of technology. As an observant Jew, my family has been doing this for centuries on the weekly Sabbath, a day designed to be free of active technological interventions. But people of other faiths and people of no faith have begun to follow this practice too as the pervasive effect of technology, not withstanding all of its wonder, increasingly undermines basic human skills and experiences. For the business leader trying to extract ever-increasing levels of productivity from a labor force becoming increasingly depleted in numbers and human energy, more efficient technology is the answer to his or her dreams. We no longer need assistants who can take notes in shorthand and type a flawless document the first time around. We don't need accountants who can do math in their heads. We need results, we want output as flawlessly, quickly, and inexpensively as possible, and technology does this better than people do. High-tech has created a "deskilling" effect where we are losing some critically important skills such as the arts of navigation and mental calculation. Still, Levitin notes:

"...just because we have calculators doesn't mean we shouldn't all learn our times tables. If you're negotiating with someone who can multiply 28 x 32 in their heads--or at least come up with a close approximation, they're going to have a big advantage over you if you have to keep punching numbers into your calculator. The additional problem is that, without knowing how to multiply in your head, you are less likely to detect a spurious answer from that trusty calculator if you enter one of the numbers wrong. Similarly, despite advances in agribusiness and global-positioning systems, skills we might want to keep include knowing how to grow your own food and how to navigate."

Interview processes should include testing people's intuitive capabilities as well as their technical skills. Candidates for hire should demonstrate the ability to interface with the world without dependence on technology, even though in their job they might not need to. If business begins to make this an entry-level expectation, educational institutions will cater to it and we will be producing more rounded individuals better able to take our organizations and society into the future. There is another area for business leaders to apply their minds: Increasingly, jobs that exist today will be redundant tomorrow. We need to develop agility into our people and help them prepare themselves to do tomorrow's work, not just today's. Just as we don't need shorthand typists and navigators anymore, so in the future many of the seemingly secure positions in today's world will no longer exist. Many of the jobs that will exist cannot even be imagined yet. Who would have thought, when we still needed navigators, that we would soon need engineers who can build cars that drive themselves and traffic systems to accommodate such cars? Business needs to create new developmental programs to build people's capacities to recreate themselves and the type of contributions they are able to make to their companies and to society. We need to be as innovative in the way we develop our employees and leaders as we are in the products we are inventing.

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