07/19/2006 02:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are our Imaginations Atrophying Now that They're Going to be Most in Demand?

Daniel Pink's recent book, A Whole New Mind points out that left-brain abilities, like physical ones, have been automated and outsourced, that IQ tests predict career success about as well as astrology, and that the important abilities in the future will be things like pattern recognition, empathy, and imagination. This is very unfortunate for us.

I have no idea how the population as a whole is coming along with pattern recognition. Certainly the federal government and the mainstream media would flunk--they haven't even noticed that the War on Drugs is an exact replica of Prohibition, or that every time we've overthrown a foreign leader, and replaced him with a ruthless dictator friendly, we've paid a horrendous price later on. If our population is anywhere near as pattern-blind as the government and media, we're on the way out.

Furthermore, the great red/blue divide seems to have ensured that our national ability to empathize is in a steep decline.

Worst of all, we seem to be losing our capacity for imagination.

I once wrote a play about human inmates in a zoo. The idea was not particularly original--a novella written in the 1920s had the same premise, and a zoo in Denmark actually features a cage with humans.

But the young actors rehearsing the play were puzzled by the concept, until one of them remarked that it was "like one of those old Twilight Zone episodes." Since there was nothing the least bit spooky in the play I couldn't see the connection, but it seemed to satisfy them. As long as the idea could be related to television its strangeness was no longer disturbing.

The experience has become a familiar one. Young people often assume, for example, that even the most bizarre and fanciful events in novels are autobiographical. And a few years ago a paper printed lines written by high school students attempting to use metaphors and similes:

"Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the center."

"The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon."

"John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met."

Is this why Hollywood has had to plunder the classics, old comic books, and current events in its desperate search for ideas? Why we're deluged with sequels, prequels, and revivals?

I recently looked at a book I'd enjoyed as a child and was astonished at how little descriptive material it contained. My own mind had filled in those richly detailed images I remember. But the new literary dogma says that the good writer must flood the reader with sensory detail at all times. No gap should be left that might be filled with the reader's imagination. Because readers that have grown up with TV are likely not to have any.

In improv games an actor is given an object and told to use it in ten different ways in a scene: a shoe, for example, as a phone, a mike, a butterfly net, a gun, a mirror, and so on. This is what kids do naturally. But for the past fifty years the toy industry has been bombarding them with toys whose meanings are pre-programmed--usually spinoffs from cartoons.

Children are naturally brilliant at inventing games. At the risk of being an old curmudgeon I recall how we used to create new rules to adapt our sports to an unfriendly playing area, a lack of proper equipment, or a shortage of players. But today play has been largely coopted by adults. Children play sports under 'ideal' conditions, with real playing fields, proper equipment, formal teams, adult rules, adult coaches, adult supervision. They learn a lot about the game. They can start preparing for a professional sports career before they even start school. What they don't learn is democracy: how to collectively invent and enact rules and play by them. How to adapt to changing conditions. How to think for themselves.

This may be one reason why we have an electorate that views politics as if it were a boutique: 'tempt me with your product--if it isn't sexy enough I won't even vote.' Why our electorate has become passive and apathetic, happy to let our democracy erode, willing to cede our freedoms to an increasingly despotic administration.