“David Brooks Outsources His Brain”

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The RTS-PTM: “How IBM maintains its competitive edge: Data from Kurzweil’s
The Age of Spiritual Machines.” Source: IBM.com.

Goodness gracious alive
If you wanna survive
You can’t forget to use your brain
‘Cause if you do you’re gonna go insane
And get left out in the rain
Feelin’ the pain …
–Zebu Cavaco and his Cur-Deus Homos, “Do the Math”

Few informed people still see the original ideal of fully automatic high-quality translation of arbitrary texts as a realistic goal for the foreseeable future. Many systems require texts to be preedited to put them in a form suitable for treatment by the system, and post-editing of the machine’s output is generally taken for granted.–Martin Kay, “Machine Translation: The Disappointing Past and Present

Homo Tertius: Columnist Thomaz Woods Jr. of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas writes an elegant and funny little “management” column for CartaCapital magazine (Brazil) — a weekly three-minute read — that I always enjoy.

A sample, translated, as ever, draft-quality and in haste, as fast as I can type, just for the exercise.

I thought David Brooks of the New York Times — one of the most deeply silly of what passes for a public intellectual on the American scene these days — might want to know that he is being made (very effective) fun of in New World Portuguese.

 

A onda da terceirização teve início discreto na década de 1980. Primeiro, foram os serviços gerais: o refeitório, a limpeza e a manutenção predial. A década seguinte levou os serviços de apoio: o departamento de pessoal e a informática. Mais uma década e foram-se a produção e a logística. As empresas mais afoitas terceirizaram até sua estratégia, delegada para onipresentes consultores e seus oráculos. A se manter o ritmo, em mais duas décadas as empresas serão constituídas apenas por três funcionários: primeiro, um presidente loquaz e bem apessoado, para prover declarações insipientes e posar para revistas de negócios; segundo, um financista, para manter contentes os acionistas e o mercado financeiro; e terceiro, um mestre de operações, para controlar, de seu console, as voláteis hordas de terceirizados.

The outsourcing wave began quietly in the 1980s. First it was general services: The cafeteria, facilities cleaning and maintenance. The following decade saw support services join the trend: human resources and IT. In the next decade, manufacturing and logistics. More adventurous firms went so far as to outsource their strategy, delegating it to the ubiquitous consultancies and their crystal balls. If the trend continues, in another two decades corporations will all have just three employees: A talkative and affable CEO to give inspid quote and pose for the cover of business magazine; a chief financial officer to keep shareholders and the financial markets happy; and finally, a COO to control the shifting hordes of outsourced labor from his management console.

Ao longo dos últimos 20 anos, as empresas tiveram seus quadros gerenciais impiedosamente cortados. Ao furor do facão, sobreviveram times enxutos e poderosos, a viver em pequenas ilhas, cercados por terceirizados por todos os lados. Mestres dos jogos de poder, escolados em intrigas palacianas, eles (e elas) agora determinam a boa sorte – ou o exílio – de seus súditos. Ciosos de suas prerrogativas, os ilhéus exercem impiedosamente sua autoridade. Dividem seu tempo a conspirar uns contra os outros e a tramar maldades contra seus sub-contratados.

Over the last 20 years, companies have had their management ranks mercileslly trimmed. Surviving this massacre by “the ax” were powerful, bare-bones teams who live on tiny islands surround by a sea of outsourced services. Masters at the power game, well-schooled in palace intrigue, they now have the power to determine whether their subjects will prosper or be cast into the outer darkness. Jealous of their prerogatives, the islanders exercise their authority without mercy. They divide their time between conspiring against one another and plotting against their subcontractors.

Do centro da ilha, esta minoria, dona absoluta de privilégio adquirido ou usurpado, gere orçamentos, aloca recursos, contrata e demite terceiros. Os ilhéus mais bem-sucedidos constroem redes pessoais com fiéis vassalos que os seguem por toda parte. Os menos afortunados resistem e lutam. Porém, n’algum momento, enfrentarão seu destino e serão exilados, tornando-se eles também terceirizados.

From the center of the island, this minority, with the absolute privilege it has acquired, by means fair or foul, manages budgets, allocates resources, hires and fires third parties. The most successful of these islanders build personal networks with faithful vassals who follow them everywhere. The less fortunate hang in and fight for their lives. All, however, will one day meet their fate and be exiled from the island, to be outsourced in their turn.

As razões técnicas para terceirizar são, há muitas luas, conhecidas: focalizar esforços nas atividades centrais da organização, deixando que outras empresas cuidem do resto, e driblar a anacrônica legislação trabalhista, evitando a sangria tributária. Até aqui, não há novidade alguma. Mas eis que um colega do norte desvenda a verdadeira razão por detrás da febre terceirizante: nada, nada relacionado com a racionalidade econômica; a verdade é que a terceirização pode ser fruto de uma busca espiritual, cujo ponto de chegada é o nirvana, a libertação, a transcendência.

The technical reasons for outsourcing have been known for many moons now: To focus effort on core competencies, letting other companies deal with the rest, and to get around our anachronistic labor laws, avoiding being bledto death by the tax man. Up to this point, nothing new. But now a colleague from the north has revealed what really underlies outsourcing fever: The fact is that outsourcing is the fruit of a spiritual quest, whose ultimate goal is nirvana, liberation, transcendence.

David Brooks, colunista do New York Times, não se refere à terceirização da fabricação de brinquedos para a China ou de desenvolvimento de software para a Índia. Seu foco não são as organizações, mas os indivíduos. Não importa, porque a analogia é direta. Em tom confessional, o autor mostra como as mais sedutoras tecnologias estão nos conduzindo da individualidade para a união com a “consciência universal”.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, is not talking about the outsourcing of toy manufacturing to China or software development to India. His focus is the individual, not the organization. But no matter: The analogy is quite straightforward. In a confessional tone, Brooks shows us how the most seductive new technologies are leading us from individualism toward a communion with “universal consciouness.”

Tudo começou, para Brooks, com a compra de um GPS, com o qual logo estabeleceu uma “ligação romântica”. Embalado pela voz do aparelho, a seguir as linhas traçadas na telinha, conheceu aconchego e segurança. Mais de uma vez experimentou a infinita capacidade do GPS de perdoar erros e reconduzir seu dono a um porto seguro. A grandeza do equipamento surgiu como uma revelação. Afinal, antes dele, quanto tempo e esforço cerebral não haviam sido desperdiçados a buscar e a memorizar rotas? Não mais. Com o GPS, sua orientação geográfica foi terceirizada de sua mente para um poderoso sistema de satélites.

It all began, for Brooks, with the purchase of a GPS, with which he soon established a “a romantic relationship.”

Having watched Brook “debating” Mark Shields frequently on the PBS News Hour, I find a mental image — Brooks, ahem, “forming a romantic relationship” with his, er, uh, gizmo — popping into my head that is not, let me tell you, a pretty picture.

Wrapped in the device’s voice, following the lines traced on the screen, he has achieved comfort and security. More than one he has experiencedthe infinite capacity of his GPS device to forgive errors and pilot its owner to safe harbor. The greatness of the gizmo strikes him as a revelation. After all, before GPS, how much time and mental effort had he wasted on seeking and memorizing ways to get places? But no more. With GPS, his geographical orientation has been outsourced from his mind to a powerful system of satellites.

“The wheel is an extension of the foot,” as McLuhan — and D. Boon — liked to point out.

Esta primeira experiência abriu-lhe as portas da percepção e fez ver que era possível terceirizar todo tipo de atividade mental e realizar a grande mágica da tecnologia de informações: substituir o cérebro humano por sistemas, algoritmos e redes. Bloqueio para escrever? Basta copiar a Wikipedia. Dificuldades para desenvolver o gosto musical? Conecte o iTunes. Indecisão para escolher um livro? Consulte a Amazon. Faltam amigos? Entre no Orkut.

This primordial experience opened the doors of perception and made Brook see that it was possible to outsource all forms of mental activity and realize the magic of information technology: Replacing the human brain with systems, algorithms and networks. Writer’s block? Just plagiarize from Wikipedia. Difficulties developing your musical taste? Connect to iTunes. Can’t choose a book? Consult Amazon. Need friends? Sign up with Orkut.

When I need to find a book, I generally consult the NYCPL and Brooklyn Public Library catalogues. Even from South America. Which is, you have to admit, pretty great.

Outras gerações cultivaram o hábito de buscar autores e músicos, eleger favoritos e colecioná-los. Coisas do passado. Toda esta atividade cerebral agora está ultrapassada. Nem a memória é mais necessária. Com o Google Desktop, o BlackBerry e outras geringonças de pouco peso e muita capacidade, basta digitar as palavras-chave e a verdade emerge, inequívoca. Para que memória? Para que autonomia? Nada de decisões difíceis e escolhas complicadas. Não tardará a chegar o dia em que estaremos todos unidos por uma única mente coletiva, a orientar o que devemos comer e beber, ver e ouvir, gostar e odiar. O novo mundo está a dois passos: o trabalho todo terceirizado, o gosto e as decisões terceirizadas. Então, sairão de cena Adam Smith e o homo economicus, e entrarão no palco Paulo Coelho e o homo tertius. Om…

Other generations cultivated the habit of seeking out authors and musicians, selecting favorites and collecting them. A thing of the past. All of this mental activities is now obsolete. Not even memory is necessary any longer. With Google Desktop, the BlackBerry, and other lightweight, high-capacity gadgets, just type the keywords and the truth emerges, unequivocal. It won’t be long before we are all united in a single collective mind that tells us what to eat, drink, watch and listen to, like and hate. This brave new world is just two steps away: First, the outsouring of work, and next the outsourcing of tastes and decisions. Adam Smith and homo economicus will exit the stage to be replaced by Paulo Coelho and homo tertius. Om …

Now that the New York Times no longer charges for David Brooks columns as Times Select “premium content” — I always found it astonishing that the Times thought that people would pay for opinion, which is plentiful to the point of being almost worthless, but not reliable information, which can be mined only from the desert of the real with a substantial investment of blood, sweat and tears — I can go and check whether Prof. Woods has given a fair summary of his argument.

It sure sounds like the David Brooks at the first glimpse of whom I tend to change the channel, though.

At any rate, I cite this as an example of a superior mind apparently ratifying the importance of NMM Mission No. 1: Reality-test the rhetoric of the technological sublime in postmodern technology marketing (RTS-PTM).

You know what happens to your ass if you sit around on it too much, right?

It gets big and flabby, and when it comes time to move it quickly, you are not likely to make it.

If a T-rex from Jurassic Park is after you, you, couch potato, are going to be the first to be eaten.

That’s right: Just like Newman from Seinfeld.

Use it or lose it.

Same goes for your brain.

They say these next-generation jet fighters can practically fly themselves, for example.

But the Air Force still puts its top guns through Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training.

Systems fail, because the Second Law of Thermodynamics — and Murphy’s Law, which is just sort of a waggish Irish corollary to and common-sense gist of Newton’s Principia — still apply in the vast, vast majority of environments capable of supporting the life functions of naked apes.

Be prepared to adapt and overcome.

The ur-purveyor of this sort of transhumanist twaddle is, of course, Ray Kurzweil.

I was just unpacking some more books here and ran across my autographed copy of The Age of Spiritual Machines.

I interviewed the fellow back in 2000, when he was predicting the DJI at 36,000 in the next few months, years, minutes, something like that.

What is Time, anyway? (Answer, in a heavy Russian accent: Time she is 3:30 pm.)

He handed me the patented Kurzweil sheaf of histograms showing me that all sorts of social and natural phenomenon were trending inexorably toward the Singularity.

How wrong he was.

As I found out when they outsourced me from the groovy little e-commerce magazine I worked at on September 7, 2001. That was quite an interesting couple of weeks.

I was in a GPS-equipped taxi the other day here in São Paulo. The driver — São Paulo taxi drivers enjoy conversation — was commenting to me that, while it was a pretty cool little gizmo, and very useful on the main thoroughfares, he often found himself running into discrepancies, many minor and sometimes ridiculously major, between the way the grid was supposed to be and actual conditions on the ground, when you zoom down to maximum capillarity.

São Paulo is like that.

The Matrix has not taken firm hold here yet, in many places, and even where it has, the exuberance of nature is always working to undermine it.

So keep your wits about you.

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