Skilling and Deskilling in Art and Business

Since the overwhelming presence of technology in the corporate domain, the issue of skill and competency has become a topic of increasing importance.  The predominant opinion is technology has rendered the skills of workers obsolete, left with the need to build more marketable skills only to be left in the same position again.  Kevin Kelly goes so far as to claim in The Invitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape our Future “:


An AI will think about science like an alien, vastly different than any human scientist, thereby provoking us humans to think about science differently.  Or to think about manufacturing materials differently.  Or clothes.  Or financial derivatives.  Or any branch of science or art.  The alienness of artificial intelligence will become more valuable to us than its speed or power. 


But is this true?  What is left for humans?  As I have pursued in previous blogs, I believe what humans posses and computers and robots don’t is that very human capacity for thought, for perception, which stems from that cross-fertilization of the cognitive AND affective faculties of the mind.  What we recognize is the importance of discovery and solutions tasking (that which can be left up to automated intelligence).  The best innovators out there say that discovery stems from personal experience, such as when the CEO of Starbucks took his first smell of aromatic coffee, which brings on a sudden insight coincidental with business expertise. 


The personal experience innovators draw upon is no different than anyone in a position of a business intelligence analyst.  Affect, drawing upon full sensory perceptions, may determine how we interpret given bodies of knowledge.  Furthermore, since affect overlaps with logic, it is possible to work down from subjective experiences of affect to their logical basis.  Once we achieve this objective, we may draw upon those skills of objective and tacit knowledge to solution task.  And it is those tasks, which may be left up to AI. 


When I looked the term up on Wikipedia, I saw deskilling defines the elimination of skilled labor by technology effecting cost savings due to the lower investment in human capital.  Yet, once we recognize the invaluable worth of human intelligence and its reliance upon the nuances of perception, the fact of rendering many aspects of human capital obsolete appears impossible.  We realize it is not so much what one is objectively looking at as how we see things, and more importantly how this very human awareness and experiential dimension of reality may spark those tasks relegated to formal learning. 


Additionally, Wikipedia claims deskilling refers to a person becoming less proficient over time.  What this assertion means is when humans perceive some kind of dismal outlook on their lives, it abrades their egos and makes them sallow, in a way tiring them out and depriving them of motivation like an organism sapped of its life instinct. 


Contemporary art historians took this issue to the table already in the 1960s with consumer capitalism, which boomed in the post-war period.  I was shocked to see the blatant misuse of famed Benjamin Buchloh’s ideas on Wikipedia.  They quote from some source.  Deskilling is:


“a concept of considerable importance in describing the numerous artistic endeavors throughout the twentieth century with relative precision.  All of these are linked in their persistent effort to eliminate arisanal competence and other forms of manual virtuosity from the horizon of both artist competence and aesthetic valuation.”


Quite to the contrary, deskilling was a strategy utilized by 1960s artists and even revived in the avant-garde work in recent times meant to undermine the values of competency based upon a kind of hermeneutics of subjective experience. Daniel Kahneman, et. al, discusses the pitfalls of the mental traps of heuristic thinking in Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.  The 60s artists perceived the Abstract Expressionists who preceded them were far too confident and held false expectations about the value of art. While deskilling may appear to be the pessimistic response to this crisis, these artists actually saw potential in redefining labor.  Deskilling was less the reiteration and evisceration of expression in the guise of technology as something which enacted a rote task with the intention of an undercurrent of sensuous experience.  Much of this has to do with our experience of instrumentalized tasks. 


A favorite artist from the 1960s, Saul Steinberg, created parodies of this crisis of deskilling in his wonderful comics.  Look at this drawing of a businessman appearing so despondent.  We think of doodling as having nothing left to do and being bored.  However, observe those doodles as the curve and meander over the page.  While the picture is sad, those lines make us smile.  Why?  The doodle is one of the best ways to let the mind wander and associate.  This is the way we work through confusion, our conflicted emotions, and resolve our ideas. 

Saul Steinberg.jpg