What Would Harry Do? And What Would Herbert and Hubert Let Him Get Away With?

I’m looking into a move about the start-up scene and in doing so ran into an “innovation network” that a former Ecologic Institute researcher works with called “What Would Harry Do?” The conceit of the network is a smart one: unleash your inner “Harry,” your inner five year old who “ate too much playdough” and has been producing “fun ideas and useful stuff” since. And they’ve got a cool collection of projects that have come out of releasing “human-centered” and “design thinking.”

But some of us had a fair bit of angst and Weltschmerz from the beginning. I don’t remember what it was like to be five years old but I have no memory of any uninhibited and pure time before rationality and responsibility [1]. So we may do our best to “get” and play with the conceit, but we keep the five year old under supervision. We’re adults, we may appreciate and even envy the five year old’s spontaneity, maybe get access to a “younger” side of ourselves by observing him or her,  but we still know best.

Because we know best, we humor the five year old for his or her own good as well, let him or her make some decisions so he or she can learn how. And observe those decisions for clues on who he or she may become and thus how we can help him or her navigate the world. For example, playdough eating may all be well and good, but if Harry eats a marshmallow placed in front of him immediately even though he would receive a reward of a second if he waited, we have reason to be concerned about his future prospects.

And here is where old Herbert (Simon, if you haven’t heard of him think 10,000 rule) would come in and remind Harry that he is not so special, and not so unique. His need to express himself, feel things, experience things, and make things are all well and good. But at the end of the day, if he hopes to make anything of himself, he’s going to have to account for the limitations of the human cognitive hardware. Harry’s short term memory will only hold a few “chunks” of information at a time, and it will take a while to get anything held there into his long term memory [2]. And if Harry hopes to make any type of reasonable living as a creative professional he’s going to have to do better than impulse. He’s going to have to start early, memorizing and organizing facts in his head so that he can call on the right fact at the right time, something Herbert calls expert intuition.

“That’s just ‘Kill and Drill!'” say Harry’s hippie parents. But Herbert has a point. And you’d better bet that Harry is going to be required to take some standardized tests to assess his progress.

Poor Harry, at best he’ll get to play out his former self in some hobby capacity (weekend board game group, low budget community theater), before going back to his soul crushing but very well compensated position at a corporate marketing firm. Get creative Harry! Sell some toothpaste! This is how the world works if you wanna make a living!

(Are you depressed now? I am.)

But perhaps Herbert got something wrong. Not about the limits of human cognition. No, he’s right on there. Expertise and intuition of value only come with time and work, and one needs to start early even if to have a sense for what it takes to build these. Hard work and discipline are essential to individual success and human advancement more generally, and Harry’s hippie parents are failing him if they do not teach him this.

But his hippie parents are right in a way. Herbert has a very narrow view of what it is to be an intelligent and engaged human being functioning in society. In Herbert’s view a human being is analogous to a computer with very smart rules of thumb (heuristics) for organizing knowledge. And while these rules are not “optimal” in the sense that many of Herbert’s even more misguided fellow Nobel Laureates in economics may think, they are very effective at organizing knowledge in the world we live in.

A Google search for “creativity” pops up this image of Steve Jobs. While not the first search result (the 9th actually), it provides good counterpoint to a certain education philanthropist quoted at the end.

Herbert devoted the last decades of his career as one of the most influential social scientists of the 20th century to the belief that a computer could think just like Harry.

Herbert was wrong as were thousands of other very smart and educated men and women. (Given the time, let’s be honest, probably mostly men.)

A Harry-like objection was raised to Herbert’s program of research in artificial intelligence quite early, by another dude with a name that starts with “H.”

Meet Hubert (Dreyfus). Hubert “saw” (as a manner of speaking but a very important manner of speaking) very early on that Herbert was very limited in what he (Herbert) called intelligent behavior. Hubert called Herbert’s new scientific program on artificial intelligence “pseudo-science” and “alchemy” and hurt the feelings of a lot of people and had to eat alone at the MIT cafeteria. And Hubert didn’t quite know what he was talking about, evidenced by the embarrassing incident where he trash talked a computer program that was beaten by a ten year old at chess, and then he (Hubert) subsequently lost to the same program.

But Hubert’s intuition was right, and it was not an intuition based on facts, but rather on feelings. In his case the feelings came first, the facts later. In the over 35 years it took for Hubert’s ideas to become mainstream, he did a lot more than just protest childishly. He placed Herbert’s contention that artificial intelligence must work in the tradition of Western philosophy to and demonstrated how this tradition can make such a contention seem so necessarily true to us to the test. And he updated this view with the work of more recent thinkers who show how this contention is not necessarily true, but in fact a limited view, and who point to plenty of intelligent behavior that computers cannot possible hope to replicate.

Why is this so important? Who cares? Most of you surely do not require so much thought to deal with your inner Harry.

Well we are in an age where education, and really creativity are more important than ever. But we have many different and conflicting understandings of what they are. And in the scholarly community the Huberts and the Herberts don’t talk to each other much, and when they do, they often behave in such a childish way as to put Harry to shame.

When today’s five year old is fifty, we don’t want him just engaging in creativity only when the stage has been set to go back to his childish self. Creativity on rails, innovation under supervision, these aren’t sufficient. And even more, we don’t want to mistake creativity for being only a childish impulse (remember the admonishment “don’t get creative with me.”) The mature Harry should be at home as much with disciplined work as with inspired design, because the two are often closely related. And for him to become this Harry he must be as much at home in the arts as the sciences, and understand how to move between each with fluency.

To close with a little fear mongering, one of the largest and most influential philanthropic donors for education also believes that Harry’s creative impulses will be little defense against the rise of the bots in a wide array of professions at the “lower end of the skill set” (including nursing!). Harry’s fun ideas won’t have much use as technology will “make capital more attractive than labor over time.” Harry and many of the rest of us can only hope  the minimum wage is kept low, says Gates, as capitalism “will create more inequality and technology.”

John Henry died driving steel in competition with a steam hammer, most of us will be reduced to poverty by silicon chips in Gates’ view.

Now that is a depressing vision, but it isn’t an inevitability. We can be creative, and we can be smarter than that.


[1] I cannot resist noting here that Herbert Simon referred to his younger self as “the boy” throughout the entire early chapters of his autobiography.

[2] Page 63 Sciences of the Artificial (Simon 1996)

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