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Metaskills vs. Robotic Curve

Marty Neumeier, author of Brand Gap and Zag, has a brand new book. Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age (to be released in January 2013) is a 21st-century handbook for navigating creative waters. Neumeier, who for many years published and edited Critique magazine, calls himself director of transformation for his Liquid Agency, which specializes in brand marketing. I was curious what he meant by “metaskills” and wondered how the book might improve the state of design, so I asked Mr. Neumeier. He was kind enough to answer.

What are metaskills? Do we all have them?

Metaskills are high-level skills that inform other skills. For example, the ability to design a page or a product is a useful skill, but the ability to design a page or a product with a great deal of empathy is awesome. It brings a metaskill into play, making the page or the product much more valuable. Empathy, to use one example, is a metaskill that greatly improves human-centered design.

We all have metaskills to some extent, but most of us haven’t developed them in any deliberate way. Schools don’t teach metaskills, and traditional business people have categorized them as “soft skills”—nice to have, maybe, but not essential. The reason these are important is that they’re precisely the skills we need for innovation.

In the past you’ve written more in the creative-commercial realm, notably with The Brand Gap. What do you mean when you say the new book will teach “five talents for the robotic age”?

In the book I focus on the talents that are conspicuously absent from the business world: feeling, seeing, dreaming, making, and learning. These are the five metaskills that will keep humans ahead of the “robot curve.” The premise of the book is that we’re entering a remarkable new period of human-machine collaboration, in which career obsolescence will speed up. I call it the robotic age, because I think the Information Age doesn’t capture the situation.

What do you mean by the “robot curve”?

As work becomes automated, its value goes down, right? Thanks to automation, creative work eventually becomes skilled work, which eventually becomes rote work, which finally turns into robotic work. At each step along the way, value is unlocked for the people nearer the top of the curve. Those nearer the bottom lose their jobs, because their skills are “brittle” and not transferrable. How many photographers and typesetters lost their jobs to computers and automation? How many designers have watched their work move to India? They fell victim to the robot curve. The five metaskills—these highly human abilities—are the best bulwark against career obsolescence.

You make the point that a good metaphor for the five metaskills is the human hand, with learning as the opposable thumb. Can you explain?

I like the hand as a symbol because it launched what we now know as technology. Our hands actually built our brains, which were forced to rewire themselves over the course of evolution to take advantage of our articulate fingers and opposable thumbs. Much like the fingers of our hands, the metaskills are interconnected and work best together. And like our opposable thumb, the metaskill of learning can dramatically increase our ability to learn new skills. We can pair learning with feeling, seeing, dreaming, and making to multiply our abilities in those areas.

You talk about change—that there is no turning back. Doesn’t that add to an already heavy stress load?

You said it! In my view, this is the main reason the world is in such disarray right now. The political gridlock we see today is the direct result of radical change. Half the world sees value in going forward, and the other half wants to turn around and go right back. We’re facing an actual paradigm shift, not unlike the start of the Industrial Age, which is something new in our lifetime. We’re scared because we sense that our skills are inadequate.

But you can’t stop the hands of the clock. When you look at the long sweep of human history, you see a fairly steady march toward more and more technology. What we need to do, however, is become more human—not more robotic. The industrial age rewarded robotic skills. The robotic age will reward human skills, those so-called soft skills that were mocked in the past. Designers are in the best possible position to seize the day, since they’re used to change. I would argue that change is what designers do.

Finally, what to you mean by “transhumanism?” Is this just more verbiage for the new age?

Transhumanism isn’t my term, but I think it illuminates an emerging view of evolution. Transhumanists, who tend to be technocrats, believe that technology and the rate of change are accelerating so quickly that we’ll soon transcend our biological limits through robotic extensions of ourselves, and that humans will eventually be surpassed by self-replicating machines. This has led to speculation about the singularity. You can read books by people like Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelley to find out more about this concept.

While these are interesting things to think about, my book is focused more on the here and now. How can we continue to grow, learn, and succeed by being more creative in our work? How can we bend the robot curve to our advantage? What will does it mean to be human in the 21st century? How will we educate our kids?

(See the Nightly Daily Heller for Digital Textbook predictions by Arne Duncan.)

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