How to prepare for the apocalypse

A lot of my work is about preparing our students for the future. Under the general banner of employability, I have a fairly boxed-in view about the future. We deal with college students and prepare them for jobs. Slightly ambitiously, we try to prepare them so that they can be masters, rather than slaves, within the context: You should be able to choose what you will do, and once you get the job, you should be able to keep it and grow in it, we say! Of course, more than anyone else, my colleagues and I know how hard a thing this is to achieve. The number of students in higher education and the number of middle class jobs (the type you keep and can grow in) are completely out of sync: A vast majority of university graduates, regardless of their degrees, will not find a proper job that can build their lives. Most will go from job to job, mostly staying at the same level all their life (job progression, the base that all middle class dreams are based on, usually only happen to 5% of the OECD workforce) until they can't do their jobs anymore because of technology changing or geographical shifts at work which they can't cope up with. Most will then slide down the job ladder, doing work which doesn't require any of their graduate level skills and those which don't offer any of securities a job is meant to offer. We are still trying to create a solution telling ourselves that even if a handful of students get benefit of it, our endeavours are worthwhile (they do and it's definitely worth it). 

The essence of this work is to prepare our students for unknown, unknowable environments. We assume that the future will be what the media, Davos, Silicon Valley and Mark Zuckerberg say it would be. Automation will be everywhere, workers will need new skills, work will be more hybrid and multicultural and will increasingly demand complex thinking. These principles aside, we don't know what it would ACTUALLY look like. The only thing we know is that it would be something sophisticated and complex, which only a few smart men (usually men) will be able to shape. The rest of us just have to adapt - or we will fail.

Every day, I live with a nagging question though: How much do we have to accept this version of the future? Are there other possible varieties that may equally come to be? Could there be a fragmented world with multi-speed technological environments? Could there be changing social norms or political upheavals that draw us away from investments in automation to investments in education? Could there be a mass participation in shaping and implementing technology instead of a few backroom boys calling all the shots? Could the priorities of countries such as India and Nigeria come to shape the direction of travel as much as America's or China's do today?

These are not idle questions. In what we call the future, I see a set of choices. Choices made by people who are empowered to make such choices and who have the right mechanisms at their disposal to promote these man-made choices as inevitable. Therefore, I take the 'future' with a pinch of salt. While I have committed all my waking hours in making sure that our students will be ready when they eventually confront the changing workplaces, I also want to make sure that they know sufficiently about our assumptions. And, more importantly, their minds remain open about the alternative possibilities.

I find William Gibson's point "the future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed' a glib Americanism that see one possible direction of travel for everyone. And what applies to communities, applies to people too: Everyone's ideal must be similar (richer, fitter, with better accent) is the claim. This mindless assertion now influences higher education too. That is the point of 'employability' - that everyone must go to the same destination! I am just mindful of the irony that education, designed for individual flourishing, has to be redesigned to fit everyone into one box or another.

This, I think, is the way to bring on a disaster, to ensure that we fail, we are unprepared when our beloved billionaires unleash their algorithmic apocalypse upon us. It won't happen automatically: We have to let it happen. We are increasingly letting it happen assuming that it is their job to decide about the future of our work and the fate of our communities and lives. We are narrowing our education to serve the 'people as passengers' paradigm. We are disengaging from democracy, gorging up false news and tearing apart the cultures of toleration and exchange, worshipping this false God of the future. Any dissent is immediately portrayed as ludditism, the machine-breaking zeal of those of us who won't buy into the limited and self-serving imagination of Silicon Valley and the Sand Hill Road (or Wall Street).

But that is exactly what I want to do, though would do this outside the confines of my current work. I am asking the question what would it take for people themselves to be in charge - of their own lives, of their own work and their own communities  I believe investment in education rather than in labour-replacing machinery is a better way to build the future. For such thinking, though, we need a new generation of leaders, who should have a clear view of technology and how the power of these can be harnessed for making more sustainable societies. 

If there was to be an existential moment, we are at it now. We are tinkering on the edges with employability as the main goal. Someone needs to take charge and make this happen.


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