As we think about the future of work, there are real questions about what machines can do better than humans and how they will replace workers.
In their new book, Framers, Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, and Francis de Véricourt argue that humans’ advantage is in framing problems, constructing conceptual models for how to approach the world.
Even the signature achievements of artificial intelligence like Google’s AlphaZero game-playing system, they argue, relied on humans to abstract and contextualize its winning moves. Similarly, the Coconet AI music-generator comes up with beautiful music, but it’s dependent upon its developers’ decision to train it on 306 scores of Johann Sebastian Bach.
“AI is brilliant at answering what it is asked; framers pose questions never before voiced,” write the authors, a senior editor at The Economist and two European professors. “Computers work online in a world that exists; humans live in ones they imagine through framing.” (p. 17)
Framing, they contend, is what humans are innately good at and should better understand and deploy. Frames are mental shortcuts for making sense of new data and experiences—focusing our minds and shaping our views and predictions about the world. Using examples ranging from MeToo to CRISPR gene editing, their goal is to provide a handbook of how to understand and develop this uniquely human skill.
What are examples of frames? “Democracy is a frame, as is monarchism,” the authors write. “In business, lean manufacturing is a frame and so is OKR (objectives and key results, the management system popularized by Intel and later Google.) Religion is a frame, as is secular humanism (this is, morality without a god.) The rule of law is a frame, as is the notion that might makes right. Racial equality is a frame, as is racism.” (p. 25)
What is the basis for frames?
- Causality—Humans have an unparalleled ability to generalize to abstract frames from the causes and effects that they observe, making the world explainable. The work of medical pioneers including French biologist Louis Pasteur, for example, established the link between germs and infection—creating a new framework for hygiene and medicine.
- Counterfactuals—We can imagine how situations might play out differently. “This allows us to project forward or backward in time in our imagination, or take something that happened in one context and imagine it happening in another,” the authors write. (p. 77) Imagining alternative realities allows us to better understand the world and develop mental models for how to act. Scientists, for example, were able to model what climate conditions would be like without humans and thus establish the role of our emissions in raising temperatures.
- Constraints—Creating restrictions for our imaginations to operate within can channel them in more productive ways for framing. “With constraints, framing goes from the purview of cognition to the basis of actions that matter,” the authors write (p. 101.) Constraints can be changed, as when SpaceX abandoned the premise that wings were needed to slow reusable spacecraft for the descent to earth in favor of rocket power for an upright landing.
How does one get better at using frames?
- Explore other people’s mental models. The case-study teaching method used at business schools, for example, is designed to expose students to different frames. The authors also suggest what they call “cognitive foraging,” or seeking out unfamiliar ideas and experiences.
- Foster and work in diverse settings. People from different backgrounds are more likely to have different mental models to bring to bear.
- Engage in collaborative debate, and welcome critics.
- Have team members frame problems independently before coming together to discuss and decide. That increases that likelihood that they’ll surface different approaches rather than too quickly coalesce around a single idea.
To be sure…
- The book is a virtuosic exploration of history, science, philosophy, and culture—a fast-paced exposition of framing from Plato’s Republic to the 2018 World Cup. But the final sections, which argue that a “coexistence of frames is essential to humanity’s survival” (p. 173), are a more earnest and plodding read.
- It requires some patience of the reader as the authors throughout the book parse the definition and components of framing, and techniques for deploying it. By the time they get to “reframing reframing,” some of the distinctions begin to feel overly obscure.
- The authors criticize the “cancel culture” premise that certain perspectives need to be out of bounds, arguing that it’s bad for society to restrict public discussion of unpopular ideas. But their argument for free speech is vague about how to handle racist and fascist expression—and doesn’t seem to fully acknowledge the trauma or stakes that can sometimes accompany it.
Memorable facts and anecdotes:
- The Wright brothers deployed the frame of aerodynamic updrift in their successful pursuit of motor-powered flight. They looked for a place with a strong wind to launch against to increase the air speed under their wings, and abandoned the idea that a plane's propeller should look like one for a boat.
- The phrase “think outside the box” comes from a 1914 puzzle with nine dots that is completed by connecting them using only four straight lines and not lifting your pen from the paper. The solution requires extending the lines beyond the box that the dots are contained within.
- Crows can engage in abstract causal reasoning, which allows them to make plans and trade with each other.
- Austrian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the presence of contagious infections and the effectiveness of handwashing in combating them, but had a flawed theory that “cadaverous particles” were involved and himself died from an infected wound in an asylum.
- Israeli commandos who successfully freed hostages flown to Uganda on a hijacked plane in 1976 rehearsed their raid in advance in a scale model of the airport terminal where the hostages were being held.
- Architect Frank Gehry said his hardest commission was when a wealthy client said there were no constraints on the home he was to design.
- American citizens born outside of the US earn more money than those born in the US, 2.5% more for men and 5% more for women. Economist Susan Pozo attributes this to “perspectives broadened by being exposed to different customers, languages, and ways of problem solving.” (p. 154)
- “Much of life is revising what we thought we knew but really didn’t.” (p. 67)
- “The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, the more valid my final conclusions.”—Hannah Arendt (p. 180)
- “Tribalism pushes us toward cognitive homogeneity, like an invisible, intellectual gravitational force.” (p. 187)
The bottom line is that Framers provides an exciting intellectual tour of how people throughout history have developed mental models that have advanced human progress. It assembles research to support the idea that a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints leads to better outcomes. And the book suggests tactics that we all can use to get better at framing problems, something especially useful in this moment of change.
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