David Brooks, Part One: The Cognitive Age

For those of you who believe the mind the center of all things, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has two editorials this week that point to wider transformations that are shaping the world in which we live. And thus our very minds.

In this post I’ll cover yesterday’s editorial The Cognitive Age, which starts with taking the over-hyping of globalization to task. “Globalization is real and important. It’s just not the central force driving economic change.” After all, globalization is an old process, kicked into high gear by the European nations in the 1500s, as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz have convincingly shown with their books, Europe and the People Without History and Sweetness and Power.

Brooks wants to make a different point about today’s global economy: “Global competition has accounted for a small share of job creation and destruction over the past few decades. Capital does indeed flow around the world. But as Pankaj Ghemawat of the Harvard Business School has observed, 90 percent of fixed investment around the world is domestic. Companies open plants overseas, but that’s mainly so their production facilities can be close to local markets.”

In other words, Brooks wants to side-step the pro vs. con debate about globalization and free markets, with Thomas Friedman and his The World Is Flat on the more-or-less optimist side and Joseph Stiglitz and his Globalizations and Its Discontents on the more-or-less pessimist side. (And for a critical take on all the pundits, see the collection edited by Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson, Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back.)

Brooks points to local change as a critical feature in our changing world, something that anthropologists have often discussed but in a much different fashion. For example, Carla Freeman in High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy: Women, Work and Pink-Collar Identities in the Caribbean shows how the arrival of global jobs in Barbados, in this case high-tech informatics jobs, reworked local gender relations and feminine identities. In a more drastic sense, Beatriz Manz shows with her book Paradise in Ashes how global politics and local elites mixed in terrible fashion to drive the harrowing destruction of the highland Maya in Guatemala. Global processes always work through local structures, whether we’re taking about globalization or about the brain.

Brooks’ piece comes down to two forces, technological change and skills, with an obvious auxiliary: the need for education. “The chief force reshaping manufacturing is technological change (hastened by competition with other companies in Canada, Germany or down the street). Thanks to innovation, manufacturing productivity has doubled over two decades. Employers now require fewer but more highly skilled workers. Technological change affects China just as it does the America… The central process driving this is not globalization. It’s the skills revolution.”

Brooks means something specific by skills. These are not the old manufacturing skills. He writes, “In order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information… The globalization paradigm emphasizes the fact that information can now travel 15,000 miles in an instant. But the most important part of information’s journey is the last few inches — the space between a person’s eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain. Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it? Are there cultural assumptions that distort the way it is perceived?”

Besides the egregious fumble of equating culture with distortion (meaning “we,” i.e., people like David Brooks , already have the “information” right), and his own distorting cultural assumption (“the individual” as just those last few inches, an understanding brain with eyes and ears), Brooks is still highlighting a central feature of post-modernity. Our skills—cognitive, social, and physical—are a distinguishing feature in how we interact with global changes. Put in broader terms, Brooks wants to get us beyond the view of companies as forming the competition on the global stage, whether you see that in Adam Smith’s terms or in Karl Marx’s terms.

He also highlights the breakdown of the nation-state. “The globalization paradigm leads people to see economic development as a form of foreign policy, as a grand competition between nations and civilizations. These abstractions, called ‘the Chinese’ or ‘the Indians,’ are doing this or that. But the cognitive age paradigm emphasizes psychology, culture and pedagogy — the specific processes that foster learning. It emphasizes that different societies are being stressed in similar ways by increased demands on human capital.”

In the end, Brooks wants to make a political point—politicians shouldn’t blame globalization for local woes. “The globalization paradigm has turned out to be very convenient for politicians. It allows them to blame foreigners for economic woes. It allows them to pretend that by rewriting trade deals, they can assuage economic anxiety. It allows them to treat economic and social change as a great mercantilist competition, with various teams competing for global supremacy, and with politicians starring as the commanding generals. But there’s a problem with the way the globalization paradigm has evolved. It doesn’t really explain most of what is happening in the world.”

I’m not sure that Brooks has explained it either by drawing on the equally simplistic notion of “cognition.” But his emphasis on those last few inches, on how the global gets transformed into the local, and his emphasis on skills as the crucial feature in how local populations adapt (i.e., do well or do badly or somewhere in between) do raise his editorial a step above what a lot of pundits are slewing out in these days.

In one sense, Brooks is simply pointing out the neuroanthropology of globalization! There’s just one problem. I don’t really know if that exists.

So, faithful readers, if you know of works that would qualify as the neuroanthropology of globalization, please leave a comment!

I don’t mean works that provide us a better view of globalization than Brooks has. Here I would recommend works like Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, and Stephen Marglin’s The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like An Economist Undermines Community.

Rather, I am interested in those last inches, our encultured brain’s particular relation to globalization. So if you do know stuff I should read, I’d love to get some recommendations.

4 thoughts on “David Brooks, Part One: The Cognitive Age

  1. Pingback: David Brooks, Part Two: Demography Is King « Neuroanthropology

  2. Pingback: Encephalon #45 - Life Is Good, Brains Are Better « PodBlack Blog

  3. Pingback: The Neural Buddhists of David Brooks « Neuroanthropology

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