Once I had contemplated and begun to comprehend the potential landscape forming for our kids I must admit I experienced haunting despair. In delivering the messages of the prior articles, I sought the inspiration and guidance of others — my speaking audiences and in actively following the circles around the authors and materials I have referenced. Here I will highlight two counter-signals we might amplify in the pursuit of Dignity, Pride and Purpose for Humanity.
In a world growing continually more technical it is rational to strongly promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). And indeed those who design, build, maintain, operate and perhaps even own the automation technology will require technical fluency. Communicating with the machines (composing instructions + comprehending results) will constitute “literacy.”
However, the automation technologies themselves will be quite apt in STEM, likely sharply reducing demand for such skills overall by greatly amplifying the productivity and capabilities of “rockstar” class technical talent. So is promoting STEM a necessity or a false hope? Let’s look at an example of one of the modern crown jewels of STEM.
The Computerized Axial Tomography (“CAT scan”) machine shown above is an amazing fusion of many technologies – biology, high-energy physics, materials, mechanical, computer science and electrical engineering. And its impact on humanity is profound (can credibly claim to have eliminated the practice of “exploratory surgery”).
However, now look at this sterile hospital room through the eyes of a four year old cancer patient or her parents. They are already terrified with their situation, and possibly enduring chemotherapy’s side effects – now she has to be strapped down to a table and put in a machine making weird noises and instructed to hold still for the procedure, and likely alone in the room.
STEAM (STEM + Art)
Now revisit the same procedure and players, but this time our patient is given a story – an adventure – and her part is less a medical test than play. Her story spans from the preparation, setting the stage – putting her mind elsewhere – substituting a benign experience in the machine gantry – and gently returning her in the conclusion of the after-procedures. The pediatric radiology room is transformed:
This is STEAM, and this is human-touch and human-empathy entwined with technology. The embrace not only of the senses through the illustrations but of storytelling and imagination. This is an example of a creation far less likely to be displaced by technological automation.
This was one epiphany: the power of human imagination and empathy. Could re-emphasizing “the arts” train humans to be more resilient to task automation – by building on uniquely human strengths?
Imagination & Mental Models
“We have an obligation to imagine […]
individuals make the future by imagining that things can be different.
Pause and look around the room that you are in.
I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten.
It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls,
was, at some point, imagined.
Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chairthan on the ground and imagined the chair. […]
This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.”
Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming,
The Guardian, 15-Oct 2013
Will the automation-productivity be wholly the tool of the few – an elite with dwindling need of others but for a market? How will they earn the money to spend? What can they possibly exchange in value – in particular if Efficiency, Economy and Quality are so elevated? Perhaps the cost of living, of healthcare of education, etc. are minimal.
But the Maker Movement shows us the incredible power of technology unleashed by imagination, innovation and entrepreneurship. Even in Vonnegut’s Player Piano, the neo-luddite rebels – in the ashes of their rage against machinery found their human nature to fix – to tinker – to innovate with technology irrepressible.
“We [humans] build mental models of everything – from how to tie our shoes to the way macro-economic systems work. With these, we make decisions, predictions and understand our experiences.
If we want computers to be able to compute for us, then we have to accurately extract these models from our heads and record them.”
Chris Grainger, “Coding is not the New Literacy”
To link our imagination with technology, we will need to be literate in technology. That is, proficiently employ composition (externalization of ideas on our heads in a manner meaningful to computers) and comprehension (understand limitations, assumptions, sensitivities, sources of error, etc.)
The Arts teach children:
- to make GOOD JUDGMENTS about non-quantifiable relationships.
- that problems can have MORE THAN ONE solution.
- to celebrate MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES and teach there are many ways to SEE & INTERPRET the world.
- the limits of our language does not define the limits of our COGNITION.
- SMALL DIFFERENCES can have LARGE EFFECTS – the power of subtleties.
excerpted from Elliot Eisner for the National Art Education Association.
Reality is Local
But the brightest hope I have yet encountered is this: there is no room for dystopian mega-corp robot army overlords in your back yard. It is so very easy to lose sight of our world in the national and global political theater. In particular during this bitter 2016 election cycle, though for decades the national dialogues have been dominated by divisive dogmatic gridlock. Elevating the abstracted beliefs of millions without accountability to the realities of daily life of individuals and their families – our system is has few practical tactics to contain technological unemployment.
In his persistently optimistic The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer posits technology enabling flexible complex networks can enable increasingly local municipalities to link together and diminish the historic need for federated authority. An example of this played out in the Paris Accord: Mayors Take On Crucial Roles Fighting Climate Change (Huffington Post, December 2015) when the mayors of 100 cities across the U.S. represented their own (but common) interests in place of the dysfunctional and ideologically deadlocked national government.
Consider that (Republican or Democrat) the more local your constituency, the less likely you are to let the luxuries of ideological debate interfere with addressing the pragmatics of:
- Availability & Affordability of Housing
- Safety of Persons & Property
- Safety & Availability of Food & Water
- Availability & Affordability of Healthcare
- Trash & Sewage Removal
- Transportation Infrastructure
- Availability & Affordability of Education
- (and the punch line): Available & Gainful Employment
Community Colleges already tap into this – linking workforce training directly to the needs of the local employers. Add to their repertoire now the ability to subscribe to distance learning “rockstar professors” from top universities through online video and curricula.
To what extent might technology connecting social networks, pooling economies of scale, promoting transparency toward compliance and globally ethical behavior, etc. obviate dependencies on state or national services? We are seeing in this election cycle deep angst and distrust of out-of-touch, pandering-but-do-nothing legislators who are ultimately compelled to wage a war of ideology first — potentially at the expense of the interests of their constituents.
This is significant in that as an individual elevates from town to state to national to global, their significance fades into the noise. Efficiency, Economy and Quality rule the stage competing between national or global entities — but the small businesses, the schools, the hospitals, the mayors and town boards may not be driven so scrupulously by profit-first motives.
Ultimately, living day to day among the humans impacted when choosing between a habitat for “money and machines” and a habitat for humanity – there is at least the hope for promoting Dignity, Pride and Purpose.
(Beginning of this thread here: Squalor at the Feet of Affluence)