Friday, September 19, 2014

Conversation 16: The Alternative Futures

This blog has become my space to converse, learn and reflect about education. Education, however, is a forward looking enterprise: While I explore motives and purposes of education, which is what I tend to do, such ideas are invariably embedded within our view of the future. My sense of urgency to work for educational innovation comes from the sense that we are at a discontinuous point in our history, and the magnificent model that we have built over last two hundred years may have run its course. This sense of urgency drives all my work, my current endeavours to set up online competency-focused higher education, to organise conferences around education innovation, of writing this blog and my studies and conversations. But, all these, as I am as aware as anyone, are laden with assumptions about the future. 

While we may all anticipate a discontinuity - because our recent living experience has been a journey of continuous discontinuity - we may not necessarily all agree on the exact shape of it. Besides, it is difficult to imagine which parts of our world will exactly change, and this process, however scientific we want to be about it, is dictated by our own values and ideas on how we live. There is a view of the future which is emerging from Silicon Valley (and its offshoots in other metropolises around the world) - one of a 'power law' economy, in which a select 'information elite' dominate the world economy and take a disproportionate share of rewards, leaving everyone else with some kind of handout. While this is presented as obvious and inevitable, there are alternative visions which look equally obvious and inevitable from different vantage points.

The vantage points are important, because, as someone fighting for justice for poor peasants in India told me, the only future that matters to him is the one that applies to him personally: If he has to starve, he has to be ready for starvation. Education is, despite all our grand mountaintop visions, a deeply personal enterprise: One that is designed to educate me for someone else's future is inherently pointless. However, though it may seem so, we are not talking about designing education with a limitless number of perspectives, which will render the enterprise futile, but rather around a few key themes. Besides, the ideas about education should be informed by which vantage points are producing a misconstrued perspective - they are facing an allegorical rear-view mirror which makes future look like the past - and the job of an educator may be, first and foremost, to challenge such a view. 

With this in mind, we can perhaps all agree that the dominant theme of education as it stood for last two hundred years, aimed at preparing people for various kinds of 'process based' jobs, is fast becoming redundant. Whether or not Information Technology can change the world, it certainly transforms the office jobs. As files disappear, so do those who filed, kept track of them and fetched them when needed, along with those who managed them. This may seem obvious at certain parts of the world, and less so in others, but it is a mistake to assume that low-cost economies are immune from such technological effects. What carries this technology wave even to those places where labour is cheap is globalisation, at one level of trade and commerce which brings the prices and wages closer across the world, and at another of values and ideas, where the managers, trained in a certain way in business schools, all start thinking similarly and measuring the efficacy similarly. This disappearance is important because, as it stands, this is what education is for, right now: Those who think that they can continue educating for such jobs just because their economies will remain protected should be challenged, and justifiably so.

But does this automatically mean that we have to buy into the idea of 'power law' economy? This view is that the convergence of automation and globalisation will out wipe out the kind of low cost advantages that powered the emerging economies in the last two decades, and create production and service clusters near where consumption is. This view seems plausible - a natural extension of the technological disruption we already see in office work and yet deeply disruptive, at least for the education frenzy the last wave of global sourcing set off in the emerging economies. However, there are fundamental assumptions underlying this view. This is based on convergence and expansion of consumption, and technological triumph over environmental concerns. Its effect, creation of a global information elite, depends on a global consensus around fundamentally contested concepts like money, intellectual property, propriety, value of human life etc. In many ways, this view is rational, but in the past, human civilisation did not follow the most rational course available to it: It often created different possibilities.

So, it is perhaps possible to imagine alternative futures even while accepting the preeminence of the machines. One may accept the growing powers of automation but reject the assumption that it will happen everything else remaining the same, i.e., within the context of the same value system that we live with today. Automation may fundamentally alter the value we ascribe to different things: Self-driving cars may make self driving a status symbol - a man of leisure! One may feel that the system of values that we live with is a given and unchanging: However, it is easy to see their social construction and know that they are inherently changeable. Besides, one problem that the economists have not solved yet in their grand vision of convergent consumption is the consumption itself: How to keep circulating the wealth if the power law economy comes into being. Self-driving cars are a great improvement, but they wont keep buying cars as cab-drivers do. The current proposals are based on tax credits, basically dole, to keep the wheels of commerce moving: However, one perhaps can see this more as an acknowledgement of the problem rather than a solution.

Finally, the emergence of the automated future also rearranged the resistance to it, and the shifting, malleable nature of this resistance, and the strange coalitions that this entails, perhaps indicate that we should not commit to any deterministic view of the future. The idea that the human beings are meaning seeking animals (rather than wealth seeking ones) should perhaps be taken seriously: Recent history may be read along those lines. Our assumption that all those who are protesting against the grand future are doing so because they are left out and desolate may only be partially right. One could clearly see that there are those among them for whom the protest, and the consequent misery, is only a choice - they have given up great luxuries to have chose the alternative paths! From the conventions of middle class life, such departures may appear inconceivable, but we may be approaching a point where middle class life become inconceivable in itself and the only conversation worth having is which departure one should opt for. 

In summary, then, we need reimagine education in the context of the technological progress, but not necessarily by accepting wholesale a deterministic view of the future. The future is likely to be ever-changing, creative and full of possibilities, just as it always turned out be all the time in the past. If not, it won't be worth educating for.


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