Saturday, January 10, 2015

Education and Automation

Automation is fundamentally changing the way we work, and therefore, the society. 

Even if one doesn't believe that technology determines everything, it should be added that the social forces, that of capital and of our present governments, also want automation to happen. Resisting automation, at least so far, hasn't been successful, and those who took that stance were generally pushed aside, along with their ideologies. 

So, if we are looking at a perfect storm of automation, what is the most appropriate educational response?

There are no easy answers, indeed. No one really knows what will really happen when we reach a tipping point of technology, when machines can learn themselves and can do cognitively demanding tasks. The optimists believe that this will be a good thing, as long as we can build a perfect welfare society that supports a dignified life for most people, allowing humans to do higher level of work, and those not capable of doing so, supported by a fair system of welfare. The pessimists, indeed there are various shades of them, believe that this will be 'our final invention', at which point our social consensus will break down and the systems of organising our societies will become redundant without a clear alternative in sight. 

HG Wells' point that history is a race between education and catastrophe become particularly relevant at this point. Some people, mostly with a developing country point of view, see education as a canon fodder for skilled economies that one might need to build in the age of smart manufacturing; those from advanced economies see one step ahead and see education as the key for creating a workforce capable of doing even higher level tasks. People who worry about the implications of automation also see education playing a critical role: In the absence of any political alternative, the best hope to preserve a commitment to human dignity lies in education.

Once someone takes automation as a given, and understand the coalition of social and technocratic elite that drive it, all these different goals of education don't appear to be competing goals, but rather complementary ones. Education must now equip human beings to remain the master of an automated world, both in terms of skills to higher level work and to enable a value system that preserve human dignity. Education, in that sense, will indeed be the 'technology of self' of this age, borrowing the term from Foucault, which should allow the individuals to continually change and adjust to a fast moving reality. 

At the granular level, of course, this is far more complicated. The developing country economies will perhaps have to go through some painful adjustments as automation reverses the globalisation of production, but speeds up the globalisation of consumption and aspiration. Developed country economies will have to deal with their own issues too, which, not unlike the developing countries, will centre around inequality, but will have far more entrenched opposition to the restoration of welfare systems. And this conversation about preserving human dignity will prove to be far more contentious in the context of a carefully crafted social attitude in vogue since the eighties which criminalises poverty and unemployment. It will not be easy to transform the predominant goal of modern education, that of creating consumers in the modern society, to something about morality and preservation, even if it is urgently needed. Education, in that sense, is being handed a Faustian arrangement, it is expected to serve a system that must be questioned and undermined to be served. 

The conversation about our new education system focus too much on how to educate rather than what education is for, taking for granted a nineteenth century consensus that is no longer valid. Automation is finally breaking down that complacence, and forcing the question in the open. Even if there are no clear answers, one must engage in this conversation - because there are fewer ways to avoid it as we automate ourselves to redundancy.




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