The new romantics in the computer age

Just once I'd like to have a college student come up to me and say, "I really wanted to major in accounting, but my parents forced me to major in medieval art". That probably won't happen. It always seems to be the parents who are pushing their children in the "practical" or mercenary direction.

These parents are part of the vast apparatus - college resumes, standardised tests, the decline of humanities majors - that has arisen to make our culture more professional and less poetic.

But you see a counter-reaction setting in. You see, here and there, signs of a new romanticism.

Secure workers will combine technical knowledge with social awareness - the sort of thing you get from your genes, from growing up in a certain sort of family and by widening your repertoire of emotions through reflection, literature and a capacity for intimacy. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Ironically, technological forces may be driving some of the romantic rebirth. As Geoff Colvin points out in his book, Humans Are Underrated, computers will soon be able to do many of the cognitive tasks taught in places like law schools and finance departments.

Computers can already go through millions of legal documents and sort them for relevance to an individual case, some day allowing one lawyer to do the work of 500. Computers may soon be able to cruise through troves of data and offer superior financial advice. Computers are not only getting smarter at systems analysis, they are improving at rates no human can match.

Colvin argues that improving your cognitive skills is no longer good enough. Simply developing more generic human capital will not help people prosper in the coming economy. You shouldn't even ask, What jobs can I do that computers can't do? That's because they are getting good at so many disparate things. You should instead ask, What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?

Those tasks are mostly relational. Being in a position of authority or accountability. Being a caregiver. Being part of a team. Transactional jobs are declining but relational jobs are expanding.

Empathy becomes a more important workplace skill, the ability to sense what another human being is feeling or thinking. Diabetes patients of doctors who scored high on empathy tests do better than patients with low-empathy doctors.

The ability to function in a group also becomes more important - to know how to tell stories that convey the important points, how to mix people together.

Secure workers will combine technical knowledge with social awareness - the sort of thing you get from your genes, from growing up in a certain sort of family and by widening your repertoire of emotions through reflection, literature and a capacity for intimacy.

But the new romanticism won't only be built on workplace incentives. It will be driven, too, by the inherent human craving for the transcendent. Through history there have always been moments when eras of pragmatism give way to eras of high idealism.

Mark Edmundson's new book, Self And Soul, is a blow in that direction. He observes that "culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical". But he argues that history has left us different idealistic models worth pondering and reviving.

There is the hero of courage, who possesses prowess and risks life and limb for a cause, thus arousing admiration and awe. There is the hero of compassion, like Buddha or Jesus, who puts others before him or herself.

Edmundson writes: "The saint seeks a life full of meaningful compassion. The acquisition of goods, the piling up of wealth, only serves to draw force from his proper pursuit. The saint lives - or tries to live - beyond desire. The saint lives for hope."

There is the hero of serious thought. "Even early on," Edmundson says, "as they enter the first phase of their lives as thinkers, they'll have one of the greatest satisfactions a human being can have: They won't lie. They'll follow Socrates, and they'll look out at the world, and with whatever mix of irony and sweetness and exasperation, they will describe it as it is to them. When others trim and sidestep, they will have the satisfaction of voicing honest perceptions."

I could imagine a time when young thinkers discard the strictures of the academic professionalism and try to revive the model of the intellectual as secular sage. I could see other young people tiring of resume-building do-goodism and trying to live more radically for the poor. The romantic tries as much as possible to ground his or her life in purer love that transforms - making him or her more inspired, creative and dedicated, and therefore better able to live as a modern instantiation of some ideal.

I'm not sure we're about to be overrun with waves of Byronic romantics, but we have been living through an unromantic period and there's bound to be a correction. People eventually want their souls stirred, especially if the stuff regarded as soft and squishy turns out in a relational economy to be hard and practical.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2015, with the headline 'The new romantics in the computer age'. Print Edition | Subscribe