Friday, August 18, 2017

Education and Automation

Working in Education, I have to confront the conversations about Automation all the time: Are there enough jobs there for us to educate so many people?

As with other things in life, there are 'Many Sides' in this debate too.

One side of the argument is that there are enough jobs, and the unemployment is resulting from a skills mismatch. As evidence, one can cite simply the number of unfilled positions that the companies report, or the poor applicant-to-job offers ratio. 

The other side of the argument is that the jobs are really shrinking and many jobs are being automated, and we should be preparing for a future when most people would not find work. There is strong evidence for this as well: It is possible to show that the job numbers, when compared like-for-like (without counting the new positions created by new companies or sectors), are often decreasing, not only in the developed countries but also in supposedly high growth areas such as manufacturing in China. Also, despite all the talk of unfilled positions and skills mismatch, most wages are stagnant or decreasing in real terms. 

This is just a snapshot of the arguments, but one could perhaps see even in this that the debate is ideological in nature. One could look at the same piece of data - the stagnation of wages - and can draw very different conclusions. And, therefore, most data give no definitive answer about what is going to happen to jobs. One may write a book with a title like 'The Inevitable', as Kevin Kelly has done, but it is sobering to note that the Robots will take at least until 2020 to fold the laundry properly. 

Besides, almost all the predictions about human obsolesce do not take into two significant factors. 

First, most of these predictions are based, at least loosely, on Moore's Law, or the ability to double the processing capability of machines every 18 months or so. Such a pattern has held since the 60s, but assuming that the future will be the kind of thing we are told to guard against. Indeed, there is no guarantee such a trend will continue, and the Robots may indeed stop at folding laundry before taking the next leap only very slowly.

Second, we completely overlook that whether we develop technology in one direction or another is actually a decision we make. And, in fact, it is a political decision. For example, it was known for a long time that the women can do more than folding laundries, but it took us a while to accept them as equals in the scientific community. At a time when overpaid Google execs are writing memos based only on convenient facts, and an American President sees provocation in White Supremacist violence but finds none in case of Islamic terrorism, we should stop pretending that politics does not matter in the decisions we make.

My point here is that the automation and human obsolesce is not a secular, technological event, but it is a choice we are actively making. This is not about computer chips going beyond a certain threshold of capability - that still lies in the future, and is probabilistic - but has more to do with the climate of opinions today. Getting back to the dictum - Future is not going to be like the Past - we may argue that this does not only mean greater automation, but may equally stand for different priorities. And, this position may actually be Optimistic rather than Pessimistic: I am arguing that, in the near future, it may appear to us that finding cures for diseases like Ebola, which kills poor Africans at this time and are therefore considered unimportant, is more worthwhile than developing driverless cars. In summary, automation is an investment decision, made within a certain context, which may change rapidly.

Also, something needs to be said about what goes for Optimism these days. That we have wrong priorities - the point I made above - is taken as unscientific, anti-progress and pessimistic. Instead, the current prophets of artificial intelligence claim that automation will not only destroy jobs, but will create new ones: As evidence, they point to the track record of industrial revolution, and how it destroyed labour jobs but created new ones instead. In fact, that it managed to create the new jobs undermined the doomsday predictions of the contemporary observers, Karl Marx included. We should think whether or not this can continue.

This is actually one of the key features of capitalism: That it can create new jobs which has no immediate productive benefit. The magic machine of capitalism is not the more powerful computer, but advertising, the ability to manufacture desire and create new social expectations. If you think of the millionaire reality TV stars - or, even better, a reality TV President - you would see what I am referring to. In fact, celebrity culture and advertising is a self-generating loop ad infinitum, and this has kept the job machine going.

This may happen again, but there is one caveat. Someone has to pay: So far, we made the next generation pay for the earlier ones. I don't know about you, and I have this terrible feeling that we are that payback generation: The judgement day seems too close for comfort. This is indeed what all the austerity messages mean. And, when one sees two contradictory messages coming out - that the party must end and yet we have a magic machine to create jobs and prosperity endlessly - coming from the inhabitants of perhaps the most important street in the world, one must pay attention and pause to think.

So, in summary, we may have to readjust our priorities, because both our technological capability and our ability to pay for creating jobs, may not last forever. Universal Basic Income has been mooted as a solution, though this found no favours in quarters where the 'celebrities' are happily paid millions. And, this should perhaps tell us what we do with technology is political, and Education - rather than a passive producer of people for jobs - should be the shaper of these priorities and conversations. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Brexit: The Remaining Problem

As Brexit starts to bite, the politics of it has come alive again. 

There are some clear signs that the British economy has started cooling. In a way, the experts were right: We have started paying the costs of Brexit. Indeed, they were wrong at the same time - the effects are slowly beginning to emerge, rather than appearing as a morning-after apocalypse. But it is inescapable that a long winter is around the corner.

This makes the politics of Brexit come alive again. The Remainers suddenly see a light, as the Leavers' claims are exposed as hoaxes and lies, and the economic effects of Brexit become clearer. Their moods are a combination of 'I-Told-You-So' and denial, as the weak and unstable government proves itself to be clueless about how to deal with Brexit. Suddenly, leaders who bailed out - David Miliband, for example - are back in conversation, urging the MPs to push for a second referendum; there is talk of leadership changes, and even of a new party of Remainers emerging. Liberal Democrats, a write-off after 2015, suddenly found themselves a purpose, and believe that they can be that party of Remainers. In summary, Brexit has made British politics interesting again.

Except one thing: Where are the Remainers?

All those people who voted to Remain in June 2016, yours truly included, have come to accept Brexit as a fact of life. They have not suddenly become xenophobic or protectionist, but the intervening months gave them more perspective than the simplistic referendum question David Cameron put forth. In a way, the Remainers have become Post-Brexit, and have come to question whether Remaining or Leaving the EU was actually the most important question.

I can, and shall, speak for myself, but I think these views are shared: Many Remainers no longer think that the Brexit was about some disgruntled voters breaking with the establishment, but that there are real issues we should think more deeply about. We have watched, in the meantime, the surreal Presidency of Trump, and another General Election, all of which indicated the end of politics as usual. We have realised that Cosmopolitanism, a nice, cosy ideal, has a downside: Globalisation's losers, obscured from view, have claimed the centre-stage and forced us to rethink what openness really means. The Brexiters' dislike for Syrian refugees was disgusting, but what came to light since is that the Remainers forgot their own backyard. 

This soft underbelly of the Liberal Internationalism now lay exposed. The Liberal Elite and the Professional Left have mixed up the Internationalism - the common cause of the working class - with the global flow of International Capital and pursuit of economic efficiency. This did not come from nowhere: The Liberal faith in progress, the Marxist assumption of Capitalism's forward march, the European belief of cultural superiority, blended together in this new slogan of unity of the world's elite. This has made the conservatives the keepers of the social, the religious leaders the last refuge of the dispossessed, and the nationalists the champion of the cultural. It needed the jarring experiences of a Brexit, and the rise of a Trump, for the illusion of openness in the Liberal edifice to break down.

In a classic role reversal now, the Remainers now find themselves not on the side of sympathy, but selfishness; enlisted not for the cause of openness - as they set out to do - but opportunism. The champions of the new remain - Blair, Miliband, the Lib Dems - are pushing an old envelop and asking a question - whether or not to remain in EU - that has been asked, and answered, already. They have not confronted the brave new Post-Brexit, Post-Trump questions, which will require new answers. Their arguments have no new ideas about how to address the challenges of deprivation and disaffection, no commitment to make globalisation work for everyone.The only thing they offer is a path back to a Golden Age that none of us can remember living in.

This is indeed the Remaining problem. One may not subscribe to the xenophobia and small-mindedness that Theresa May offers, but the opposite cause is equally bankrupt. The offer of 'Making Brexit work for everyone', the somewhat less sexy Corbyn slogan, may have more to it than we see. Indeed, the idealistic 'Making Globalisation work for everyone' is not on offer - at least, not from the current bunch of politicians.  So, despite all the talk, except for a few people worrying about visa queues (having lived most of my life with an Indian passport, this does not bother me much), the Remainers don't have much to go for them. That is, not until they get back to basics, and start asking the questions they should have confronted a long time ago.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Training to Teach in Global Higher Education: Ideas For A Qualification

The idea came to me from various conversations in China and India: That teacher training in Higher Education is an urgent need and a significant opportunity.

This is counter-intuitive. Most Western institutions of Higher Education, autonomous as they are, train their own teachers. For Continuing Professional Development, the emphasis here is on Research, and an established network of Conferences exist to foster the community. Teacher training is for schools, where the volume and turnover of teachers are high, and it needs constant refreshing.

However, the expansion of Higher Education in the last decade in China, India and elsewhere brings into play a different reality altogether. 

First, the Higher Education institutions created in these countries in the last decade are different from research-led institutions in the West: They are teaching institutions operating at a mass scale. The focus is on teaching at scale, and the appropriate teacher training is therefore of great importance.

Second, these institutions face an acute talent shortage and high turnover. Teaching in Higher Education is not well remunerated, and few opportunities exist for professional development. Faculty members are recruited directly after completion of their education, and often lack perspectives and skills required to be a successful university teacher. A training solution for the new teachers are in demand among institutions that want to retain its faculty and develop their skills.

Third, the quality of Conferences and opportunities to develop Professional networks are often quite limited too. The Conference ecosystem is springing up as a response to the expansion in the number of teachers, but the conferences, modelled after the Western ones, are research-centric and at odds with the requirements of teaching focused institutions. 

Besides these, the teaching in Higher Education is also rapidly changing. Globalisation is a persistent reality, both in terms of access to talent (and lack of it, as trained faculty often migrate abroad) and student preferences (more global institutions are preferred by students). Technological change is also making an impact, and its possibilities are instantly understood in the context of requirements in countries like China and India, though the solutions available are often immature and poorly implemented. Finally, appreciation and understanding of outcomes, always a challenge in Higher Education sector, are critical in resource-poor, outcome-hungry developing countries, and this imposes a new set of demands on teachers.

What ideally is needed is a qualification and community for Higher Education teachers (in the broad sense, and including people teaching in Technical schools) that is geared to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century. The demand for this is understood in countries such as China, where the state actively encourages faculty development and global exposure; it is also obvious in countries like India, though, generally speaking, it suffers from a greater level of 'not-invented-here' syndrome and actively resists change. However, even in countries like India, the allure of a foreign qualification for teachers is irresistible, and there is a strong business case to develop something to offer to Indian teachers as well.

Despite the apparent opportunity, however, most Western Teacher Training institutions and qualification bodies are wholly unprepared to provide a solution. Apart from the fact that teacher training in Western nations is primarily a K12 focused affair, Education as a whole remains a very nationally-oriented area of research and conversation. 'Transnational' in Education often has imperial undertones - this means local practises being spread globally - and supplanting teaching models from a Western nation is hardly the solution the rapidly expanding mass Higher Education sector in China and India needs.

Globalisation of Finance and Business has hardly reached the academia, and while Western Universities attracted millions of students, they attributed this success, perhaps rightly, to maintaining their British, American or Australian roots, rather than on their ability to understand and solve problems in the developing countries. That this creates a curious duality - they claim education is a public good and try hard to protect public funding, while at the same time, encouraging and serving the International students' private needs and aspirations as faithfully as ever - but the Western University sector is completely oblivious to such inconvenient questions.

There is also a deep distrust of technology! Good teaching and deployment of learning technologies are seen as oppositional activities. This is not necessarily so in the Developing World, where teachers bother less about having to write emails after work and more about the struggle to find even the basic research papers or learning materials. Their commute to the classroom are often more troublesome and sweatier than the pleasant drive through Middle England, and they are therefore happier to explore how to teach online. And, besides, for a teacher in Indian Higher Ed, mastering the technology is a desirable advantage, not a self-defeating distraction.

And, finally, the outcome-centricity is seen by most people in Western Higher Education as a sign of creeping managerialism (which it is). Higher Education institutions, with its public roots and ecclesiastical pretencions,  do not want to be accountable for short-term and measurable results. There is inherent contradiction between this and the pursuit of private advantage which Higher Education mostly represents, but this is one thing Western academics feel very strongly about. There is no such luxury in India and China, where hierarchy and accountability are facts of life. Surely, the practises there need a 21st Century update - often the people in Higher Education are being accountable for wrong things - but outcome-centricity would not come as a surprise to someone teaching in Higher and Professional education in developing countries.

In conclusion, I see a clear gap and a significant demand. I am well aware of the challenges of building a never-before solution in Education, particularly Higher Education: In a regulated industry, regulatory compliance replaces excellence, and a service that may make perfect sense under the logic of competitive markets, may find few takers unless it is a regulatory requirement. I have applied my market-based logic to regulated sectors before and am well-aware of the perils of such an approach. In planning Teacher Training, therefore, I am not just planning a programme to be launched under a private label, but rather with the right credentials and hopefully with blessings of regulators in certain target countries. This may indeed be my next big project, and I am all excited about it.


Friday, August 11, 2017

On Being A Hindu

I remember this awkward dinner conversation. I was with my colleague in Northern Ireland, and a friend of his joined our table. After we were introduced, he wondered at my name and asked me what religion I belong to. I went for the simpler answer and kept my doubts aside: "I am Hindu", I said. That made him even more confused. "What's a Hindu?" he said, "Is that some kind of Muslim?"

When I tell this story to my friends in India, they are usually outraged. What an ignorant person, they would say. Particularly treating Hinduism as a branch of Islam, when Hindus love to believe that everyone was originally a Hindu, upsets them. I have also reflected upon this conversation later. It may indeed be that he did not know. He was particularly ignorant, just as ignorant as the lady, who, standing inside the Irish Bar at Mumbai's ITC Grand Central hotel, asked my colleague - the same person as it happened to be - where Ireland was. But the confusion about Hinduism is more common than one may think. The 800 million Hindus live in one geographic corner of the world. This may make many people, who live their lives contentedly within the region, feel Hinduism engulfs the world, but the reality is just the opposite: Most people live in blissful ignorance of something called the Hindus (the same people indeed wish they could ignore Islam as well).
For me, I had to go through several cycles of finding my identity. Like any Indian, I had several layers, and knowing what to describe myself as has mostly been an act of negotiation. An Indian, I would most commonly say, despite my citizenship, because I defined myself by the Post-Imperial Republicanism that made India. This meant at once rising above my Hindu identity and being deeply into it, as the flavour of Hinduism I grew up with was, despite all the rituals and festivals, universalist. It fitted nicely with the idea of India then fashionable - with its emphasis on private faith, tolerance of other ideas and acceptance of the world as it is. There was casteism, but not in its virulent form of exclusion and violence; there was superstition, but in its comical manifestation in doing or not doing something on a particular day; but overall, this was a flexible, personalised religion, allowing me to pick and choose. 

This may sound paradoxical for those who haven't had a similar experience. But, an apocryphal story, which I first heard from Shashi Tharoor, an Indian statesman, captures the spirit. Mr Tharoor tells the story of a young man who had doubts and approached his father to know about Hindu religion. The father said he was too young and perhaps they should have a discussion when he grew up. A few years later, the father offered to induct his son into Hinduism, but the son refused, stating he had already lost his faith. "Welcome to the atheist branch of Hindu religion", his father said.

A Hindu would perhaps appreciate the story, but it is harder for others. Confirming that religion makes awkward dinner conversations, I must talk about another dinner, this time in Salt Lake City, Utah, when I was asked the same question. By then, things changed for me: The extreme form of Hinduism that took over India made me question my own prejudices and superstitions, and lose my faith, as much as someone born a Hindu can possibly do. I said, "I am an atheist", perhaps smug in comfort of belonging to the atheist branch of the Hindu religion. This stopped all conversations around the table - Salt Lake City is indeed a more religious place than most others on earth - and everyone looking at me with some kind of incomprehension. Finally, someone rode to my rescue:"You are not an atheist! You don't go around telling people not to believe in God. You may say you are agnostic, but not Atheist." I am certain this wonderful specificity of English language and Christianity would be mostly lost on my Hindu brethren, but apart from the insight about religion's place on dinner table, there is not much to be learnt from this.

But I must also perhaps explain why I started questioning my faith. The universalist, tolerant ideas that I grew up with dissipated rather quickly. What we have now instead is a different version - intolerant, ignorant and ritualistic - an opportunistic amalgamation of politics and religion that sanctions everything and yet controls everything, makes hatred its centrepiece and claims a pre-scientific heritage of universal truth. WhatsApp groups in London Suburbs now discuss the merits of sprinkling cow urine on one's head, the Prime Minister of India straight-facedly claims that Lord Ganesha - the Hindu elephant god - was the first case of plastic surgery (taking the idea that Ancient Egyptians knew some techniques of skin grafting to its absurd maximum) and people in India are regularly lynched for being suspected of eating beef. At the same time, elaborate rituals are now performed in offices and businesses, consuming beef has become a public offence in some parts of India and campaigns against Muslim actors and artists are now acceptable nationalist indulgence. The astrologers are having a great time: Recently, one applicant told me that he delayed sending his CV by two weeks - this cost him the opportunity - because the times were not favourable. The animistic, ritualistic religion that we thought we left behind has arisen from the ashes as the only true faith: There is no longer any branch of Atheists in Hinduism.

Indeed, the torch-bearers of new Hinduism recoil at Max Weber's categorisation of Hinduism as a Non-rational, Inactive religion (in Weber's world, Christianity was Rational and Active, and trumped the Rational but Inactive Confucianism and Active but Irrational Islam), but fate is back in business. Samkara's dictum that Vedic rituals are for the ignorant have been totally forgotten, and Gita's insight that Inaction may destroy one's humanity, something Max Weber completely missed, has been erased out of consciousness as well (The more famous part of the verse says, "You have a right to action, but never to its fruits", but the later part, "Never desire the ends, and never indulge in idleness", is rather forgotten). This new Hinduism, fashioned as a pure faith, is built around elements borrowed from proselytising religions: It is ritualistic and with provisions for conversion (which one can't technically do in Hinduism, therefore the assumption that everyone was once a Hindu and conversions are merely purification rituals), and it is based on rejection of the very universalistic, tolerant faith that I knew as Hinduism.

In a way, therefore, this is the best and the worst of the time to be a Hindu. Suddenly, a third possibility - between the Ritualistic Hinduism and desolate Agnosticism - opened up for people like me. It is essentially an invitation to rediscover a civilisation that lasted for thousands of years, and despite being run over by invaders and moulded by many outside influence, which maintained its essence of faith - in humanity, above all else. One could perhaps see that my aversion of the Evangelical Hinduism has finally inspired me to get back to the basics - read Gita which I should have done long time ago - and find again the essential, rational, civilisation that is founded on the idea of tolerance. My wanderings took me to the American pragmatists and my foundational belief became - "Ideas should not become Ideologies" - and yet, my journey home to Hindu texts reveals essentially the same idea, an acceptance of the world as it is, with all its imperfections, diversities, redundancies and beauties.

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