The Race Between Technology and Education: Round Two

Indeed, I have borrowed the title from Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz's classic study, because we are living through a time when the race has entered a new phase, showing up in all its splendour with anxious hinges and critical turns. It's time to decide and act, and every step counts. Of course, technology is not autonomous and we are indeed the 'driver in the driverless car', and the choices we make today will decide whether technologies will tear apart our society, as some fear, or, if it would unleash the next cycle of prosperity.

The optimists have empirical evidence, indeed. They cite - and this is what Goldin and Katz were primarily looking at - Industrial Revolution. Despite all the early fears of job losses and social unrest, the technological progress eventually ended up unleashing a new era of prosperity. The prosperity took time to build, and there were many social unrests along the way: Malthus came along to make us think people can be surpluses and wars and famines may be good things, just natural corrections. However, in the end, in the long run, everything fell in place: Working men learnt the use of new machines, not least as schooling became universal and new skills were learnt. Soon, Malthus, as well as Marx, faded from view: Population ceased to be a problem and became a resource, and Wage Labourers became enthusiastic consumers. And, everybody lived happily ever after.

Till the next disruption came along, which we are living through now. The Optimistic case is that, despite the current anxiety about the effect on jobs, it would be just like the last time: In the end, education would facilitate the diffusion of technology, productivity will rise and we shall unleash the next cycle of prosperity. 

While the economic argument is clear, the history is less straightforward. Indeed, telling the tale of Industrial Revolution in this way glosses over all the revolutions, wars and bloodshed that came along the way. That we shall withstand another global war, or another exterminatory project like the Holocaust (inspired by a Malthusian vision), is a big assumption to make. In the long run, this time around, we may indeed be all dead.

Besides, while this narrative treats colonialism as a mere sideshow - in fact, co-opts the colonial history as march of civilisation - the societies at the receiving end suffered much and lost a lot. The 'general prosperity' in one part of the world came at the cost of decline in another part. We can't really compare the loss of life and livelihood in Africa, Central Asia, China, India and elsewhere with the gains made in North America and Europe, but that some part of the process was accumulative - the machines imposed a mechanism of exploitation - can not be denied. This time around, with a different global dynamic, and natural world showing signs of wear and tear, such abundance may not be there for the taking. And, therefore, this time may be different.

And, finally, the technologies are different, too. The technologies of the industrial revolution were aimed at extending physical capabilities. The steam and the automobile extend the horse power, the loom bettered the efficiency of the operator, and so on and so forth. They did what we were not good at, and leveraged our abilities: The horse population declined with the advent of the cars, but an average worker got better with the mechanical drill or the typewriter. But the 'tools for thought', as Howard Rhinegold presciently labelled what we have now, are designed to do what we do well, and demand from us abilities average person is not good at: The automated processes expect human operators to watch and intervene if they go wrong, despite distractability being our principal weakness: It is only a matter of time when we bring in machines to oversee machines, as we have started doing now.

That's my case, then, that this current phase of the race between Education and Technology are different from the last one. It is not just the challenge of lifting the literacy and allowing the diffusion of technology that the education has to achieve; its task would be deeper, of creating a moral awareness of our engagement and responsibilities, so that we become aware of the consequences of our actions, on others as well as on the natural world. We are masters of technology as long as we understand it, and education is tasked with, not just of mastery of the tools, but of the logic of their existence.

The point is, we are doing a bad job at it. The education systems that we have, our approaches, are geared for the race we have run, and possibly won (with the steroid of colonialism perhaps, but who cares), but that's no guarantee for success now. The state-sponsored education, the credential obsessed society, the formal and monetised forms of knowledge, allow little space for coffee-house learning, a point I made in earlier posts, and little opportunity for moral and sympathetic considerations. We are yet to innovate our paradigm of innovation, disrupt our notions of disruptions, and get real. 



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