The Skills Question


When I saw this government advert, my reaction was: Cyber what? 

I did not make the immediate connection that a ballerina is being expected to become a Data Scientist overnight. I am now relieved that many other people found this ad to be distasteful and stupid.

But instead of waging a cultural battle on this ad, it's worth thinking about the problem it creates. This is not just about undermining skilled professions (such as ballet) or underestimating the efforts required for a transition. The images and words of the advert can be changed (and it seems that the Government has indeed pulled the advert) but the mindset behind them would not (as the government most helpfully explained, no one in particular was responsible).

So, really, not Fatima, but the people who thought up this message should rethink, rewrite and reboot. Not because they are promoting hopelessness - which they certainly are doing - but because their hopes are misplaced. They are promoting a conference circuit version (which should reboot itself, in the absence of the conference circuit) of the world, where 'Cyber' will eat the world. In fact, if anything the pandemic has shown just the opposite: First, it has shown the limits of the cyber - all those frosty Zoom calls, pathetic single-chair school sessions and the never-ending WFH days - and, at the same time, proved the value of the care work that we fail to recognise and value. Nurses who put their lives on the line, teachers who stretched themselves to support their pupils, all those 'keyworkers' who did everything they can to keep us alive, fed and normal - Fatima could be any one of these, even if we accept the sad demise of ballet dancing as a fact of life (which we definitely don't have to, considering it lived through many a pandemic).

I am not trying to be alarmist and resist cyber: I don't think we can. But the trumphalism is not about technology, it's an ideology. It's not even markets know best - it's just that the bankers and big companies know best. But that's entirely questionable: Just as a fourteenth century peasant could secretly question why pandemics are raging when the priests could read the word of the God, we can legitimately ask why we are blundering into another wave of the pandemic if those who run our societies knew it all and could read the mind of the market! If the last six months have taught us anything, it's this: They don't know what they are doing! 

One final point: As and when emerge from this pandemic, our lives and our societies will need starting over. That starting over will not just be going over to cyber, as these adverts seem to indicate. This will mean rejiging our priorities. including a recognition for those who David Goodhart calls 'Heart workers', those who care for us. The most important skill will not be to write codes, but to be able to connect with one another. Empathy will perhaps be most-sought-after trait in a world of relationship workers; Decency will, one hopes, be counted as a competence. It will be a new world that will need new thinking: Cyber is so last century to provide the answer we must seek ahead. 

 


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