The Test Of A First-Rate Intelligence

Published in Online Spin, September 28th, 2018

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Here’s an example: Technology is going to destroy all the jobs. And technology is going to create all the jobs.

Let’s start with the destruction. In 2013, Frey and Osborne published a now-famous paper suggesting that 47%-81% of American jobs would be under threat from technology within 20 years. The number was 40% for Australia, and 46% for New Zealand. In 2016, the International Labour Organisation (yes, that’s how they spell “labour” and “organisation”; they’re international) said 137 million jobs in Southeast Asia could be on the chopping block within 20 years.

Lots of doom and gloom -- including from myself. But, of course, not the whole story.

The opposing idea: Technology will create more jobs than it does away with -- 58 million more jobs than it displaces in just the next four years, according to the World Economic Forum.

Two ideas: biased algorithms are destroying society -- but the way to reduce bias is to use algorithms.

There are myriad examples like these, where each story on its own is dramatic and conclusive, but the full picture is much more nuanced. And it’s obvious why: Opposing ideas don’t make for good storytelling. Good storytelling has a hero and a villain, a good side and a bad side. A balanced story -- the middle way -- just doesn’t attract eyeballs in quite the same way.

It’s easier to cherry-pick evidence for a simple story. It’s easier to remember a simple story. It’s easier to repeat a simple story. That’s why we use them -- because they work.

Last year, David Sessions reviewed Daniel W. Drezner’s book ”The Ideas Industry,” comparing the “thought leader” to the “public intellectual”: “Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg ‘develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.’ While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to ‘change the world.’”

Skeptical. Analytical. Complexity. Sadly, these are not the words that come to mind when we think of the current public discourse, whether it’s this week’s hearings or the filter-bubbled content served up on our Newsfeeds.

It’s understandable that we would tend towards reinforcement of our beliefs rather than challenge. It’s comforting to have our singular lens validated and reinforced. If you never held true to anything, you would be rudderless, lost.

But it’s also dangerous. When we embrace that singular lens, we lose the ability to learn. We lose the ability to be wrong. More importantly, we lose the ability to see the world as it is, rather than as we wish it was.

The world is a complex and messy place. No, automation won’t destroy all the jobs -- but neither will people whose jobs get eaten simply go to new jobs created by advances in technology. Many of the new jobs will require new, significantly more challenging skill sets, or they will be in different locations than the old jobs. I mention this not to say we should avoid automation at all costs, but to point out that any simple narrative about the future of work is not giving you the whole story.

Our job as citizens is to be informed. So when confronted with an idea that opposes yours, seek not to reaffirm yourself, but to understand the other. It’s the best workout we’ve got for developing a first-rate intelligence.

Kaila Colbin