The ‘digital revolution’ and a race against the machine

After a long while of procrastination and generally putting it off, I’ve decided to go back to uni and do some study, which could explain the drop in blog posts lately! The course I have decided to do, on the recommendation of Claire Amos (thanks Claire!), is AUT’s Masters in Education. The decision was made easy by the fact that Jane Gilbert is offering two papers on Educational Futures, which definitely appeals! The idea is for me to put some rigor around what My-learning is all about and what we are doing in the clusters of schools I am working with. I feel a big responsibility to do the ‘right’ thing and head in the ‘right’ direction.

The trouble is that the course is predominantly by distance. We have block courses to get together and discuss our thoughts but, being a bit on the shy side, I haven’t shared my thoughts as much as I should have. So I’ve decided to share some of the readings we have done, as well as my thinking about these readings. I’d love it if readers could comment with their perspectives.

The first reading I would like to share with you is Race against the machine: how the digital revolution is accelerating innovation, driving productivity, and irreversibly transforming employment and the economy. By Bryjolfsson, E. & McAfee, A.


A summary:

Bryjolfsson and McAfee begin by summarising the current economic situation in America – productivity is rising (at an all-time high at the moment), GDP is rising but there hasn’t been a rise in salaries, or at least not for the majority. This, they say, is not just because of the GFC but because of the capabilities of technology. Technology can now do many jobs faster, cheaper, more accurately and more globally than humans would do them. Computers have also reached the stage where they can do tasks previously assumed to be purely in the realm of human capability – eg. Technologies that are able to recognize patterns, communicate and even drive on their own.

General Purpose Technologies (computers, today) are also developing at an exponential rate, whereby we are moving into the ‘second half of the chess board.’ Now, ideas don’t get used up, we combine ideas to make new ideas – one technology gives rise to many more. In this current state, some human skills are becoming (or have already become) redundant and some are becoming more valuable. At the moment, computers don’t have great motor skills, can’t solve problems well and are not terribly creative.

Bryjolfsson and McAfee recommend that we race with computers, not against them.  We can use technology to free us up to do other things but this will involve re-structuring work and shifting our understanding of “organizational structures, processes and business models.” The authors foresee entrepreneurial skills as key to creating “new product categories, ecosystems, and even industries” in a world where industries are ‘hyperspecialised.’

In terms of the education sector, Bryjolfsson and McAfee believe that schools need to adopt technology at the same rate as other industries, innovate faster and develop soft skills (e.g leadership, entrepreneurialism, creativity and the ability to think for one’s self).

My response to/thinking about this text:

Not being an economist, I can only really pass judgment on the educational recommendations included in this book. These appear to be at odds with the recommendation by the same authors to innovate. It sounds to me like they advise us to pay teachers more to teach for longer each day, doing the same things we are already doing. If we bring in a performance based pay scheme and focus on measuring students’ performance more, it is likely that this would make teachers less likely to innovate.

I think that if the authors are right about the exponential changes we will see in the future, we will need to change the education system more drastically than that. However, this is the problem with reading texts that are outside of a realm of our expertise; it is easy to take what they say as gospel, because you don’t know any different.

I find Jamais Cascio’s Pink Collar Future ideas relate nicely to this too – how do we up skill students in areas that computers are incapable of competing? Is this worth thinking about, when we are only able to consider what computers are able to do now and what they could do in the pretty near future?

I also wonder whether we are too focused on what we already know and are accustomed to. If you look at the development of society and culture facilitated by hunter-gatherers settling down into small agricultural societies as an example, people developed entirely different roles, such as religious leaders. I wonder if ‘work’ as we know it now is not even a subject worth considering; perhaps a new and unrecognizable society will emerge where humans will spend their time in completely different ways. If technology really is developing at an exponential rate, how soon might this happen?

In addition to this, I dare say we will have to re-think what we, as consumers, want from our goods and services. If you take a hairdresser as an example, I’m sure that in time we can get a highly effective hairdressing robot. But what about the hairdresser who knows you and your family through the stories you tell, gives you advice, listens to your complaints…? Will we accept a robot that might be cheaper but is less quintessentially human? What about teachers? Can we truly be replaced by Khan Academy and the like? Or is a human, relational aspect still important?

What do you think?


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