I thought I’d share some things that have really opened my eyes recently.
The first is a two-part interview with Vinay Gupta from the Emerge podcast in 2019. I’ve followed Vinay’s work ever since we tried to get Firecloud (a P2P publishing platforming using WebRTC) off the ground in 2013 when I was working at Mozilla. Ten years ahead of the curve, as always.
Working with Vinay absolutely blew my mind, and although we haven’t met up in person for a few years, he’s been changing the world in the meantime. He was the release manager for Ethereum, and he’s currently CEO of Mattereum.
The difference with Vinay, though, is that he’s enlightened. I don’t mean that in a LinkedIn kind of way. I mean that in a studied-under-a-Hindu-guru kind of way. This underpins all of the humanitarian work he does, some of which you can see at myhopeforthe.world
The two episodes on the Emerge podcast are entitled Waking Up in the Monster Factory (Part 1 / Part 2). I guarantee they are worth your time.
The late, great Dai Barnes implored me to watch Curtis’ 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation. I’m only half way through the new documentary series, and it’s having a similar effect as when I watched that. A feeling of waking up, and seeing the world as it really is. It’s kind of counter-conspiracy theory.
The crucial thing for me, and my reason for sharing both of these, is a recognition that there’s no-one coming to save us. But, unlike those people discussed in the 99% Invisible podcast episode The Doom Boom, it’s up to us to figure out how to pull together collectively — instead of hunkering down and just making sure that our immediate family and friends are OK.
This time, I want to talk about education. It’s been a decade since I left the classroom as a school teacher and senior leader but, just after doing so, I co-kickstarted a project called Purpos/ed: what’s the purpose of education? While the original website has long since gone the way of all digital bits and bytes, it can still be accessed via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (which may take significantly longer to load than most websites, so be patient!)
My reason for returning to this project is that it seems that many people, especially parents and educators, are once again thinking about the purpose of education. There is even a UNESCO Commission on the Futures of Education to which you can add your voice.
Below are some of my favourite responses to the Purpos/ed campaign, right after a video clip from Prof. Keri Facer, whose work (especially Learning Futures) served as our inspiration.
Before the first Purpos/ed post was written, I jotted down my own off-the-cuff answer: “the purpose of education is to aid our meditation on purposes — what should we do, why and how?”. I know that’s a bit glib, but it adds a reflexive twist to this debate: how sophisticated and sensitive to changing context are our education systems and discourse? I worry we may be in for a rude awakening when the education squabbles of the Easy Times are shown up as an irrelevant sideshow when the Hard Times bite.
Education should not be just be about the ‘system’ or the schools, it should be about the community and drawing on the skills and knowledge that is within our local communities. Enabling our children to learn from what has gone before to ensure that they enhance their own future. For many education provides an escape, a way out that broadens their horizons and provides them with opportunities that they did not realize existed, that can ultimately provide them with richness and most importantly happiness.
The internet provides us with rich and free spaces for expansive learning. The institutions only have left their monopoly on funding and on certification. And so capitalism has begun a new project. The first aim is to strike out at democratization of learning by privatizing education, by deepening barriers to equality and access. And the second more audacious aim is to privatize knowledge itself, to turn knowledge and learning into a commodity to be bought and sold like any other consumer good.
Thus we find ourselves at a turning point for the future of education. The contradictions inherent in the different views of the purpose of education do not allow any simple compromise or reform minded tinkering with the system. For those that believe in education as the practice of freedom there are two challenges: to develop a societal discourse around the purpose of education and secondly to develop transformative practice, as teacher students and student teachers.
Education should critically ensure children, young people and adults are equipped to be unsettled, to be confronted by difference, to be changed, and to effect change. Education is a conduit to different cultures, different places, different times – to different ways of thinking about things and doing things. Education provides us with an introduction to things unimagined and unencountered. It should provide the critical challenge to examine our beliefs, interpretations and horizons, the ability to reexamining ourselves in new contexts, to develop new interests, to review the ways in which we understand ourselves and our place in the world. The purpose of education should be to expand expectations, not to confine them – to support our learners in understanding the impact they can and do have on their world. We cannot expect education built upon, and educators who model, a fixation with certainty and inflexibility to meet the urgent and ongoing needs of pressing social, economic and political change.
For me, the purpose of education is to become a better human being; recognising that we share a commonality with others around us and that we are bound to the ones who walked before and the ones to come. It allows us to draw on the experiences of the past and help prepare us to face the future (with all its attendant opportunities and issues). Conceived in this sense, it allows us to remove the primacy of the veneer (worker, teacher, student, friend) and reinstates these (important) roles within the context that they form part of a larger whole. Doing so would also allow us to rethink the relationship of means and ends and unlock the powerful impact this reconfiguration can have for the lives of people around us when we do treat them as they should be.
The desire to learn is woven into the concept of contentment and that, for me at least, is the basic purpose of any education system. Contentment can flourish into happiness, riches, recognition or any other myriad of emotional and material gain. But without a content society, with an ambition to continually discover and question the world around them throughout life, we end up with society’s biggest enemies: complacency, stagnancy, apathy and ambivalence.
An educated population is probably the least governable, the most likely to rebel, the most stubborn and the most critical. But it is a population capable of the most extraordinary things, because each person strides purposefully forward, and of their own volition, together, they seek a common destiny.
Education, it seems, is the method by which we attempt to make the world come out the way we want it to. It is about using our power to shape and control the world to come so that it comes into line with our own hopes and dreams. In any way we move it, even towards chaos and anarchy, we are still using our power to shape and control the future.
It is make or break time for humanity and we have a responsibility to draw a line in the sand, admit our mistakes and create a system of education that can begin to undo the harm that we have done to the world. For all the talk over the last twenty years of the ‘global village’, it has not stopped us continuing to destroy our planet, to wage wars and to continue to ignore the inequalities in society. What is the purpose of education? Surely, it is to create unity by helping future generation to recognise the values that humanity share.
As Purpos/ed was a non-partisan campaign, Andy Stewart and I didn’t give our views on the purpose of education. But perhaps, in a follow-up post, it’s time to explicitly state what, for me, it’s all about? I’d certainly like to read what others are thinking…
Quotation-as-title from Antonio Gramsci. Header image via Pixabay.
Have a quick skim through these links that I came across this week and found interesting:
Overrated: Ludwig Wittgenstein(Standpoint) — “Wittgenstein’s reputation for genius did not depend on incomprehensibility alone. He was also “tortured”, rude and unreliable. He had an intense gaze. He spent months in cold places like Norway to isolate himself. He temporarily quit philosophy, because he believed that he had solved all its problems in his 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and worked as a gardener. He gave away his family fortune. And, of course, he was Austrian, as so many of the best geniuses are.”
EdTech Resistance(Ben Williamson) — “We should not and cannot ignore these tensions and challenges. They are early signals of resistance ahead for edtech which need to be engaged with before they turn to public outrage. By paying attention to and acting on edtech resistances it may be possible to create education systems, curricula and practices that are fair and trustworthy. It is important not to allow edtech resistance to metamorphose into resistance to education itself.”
The Guardian view on machine learning: a computer cleverer than you?(The Guardian) — “The promise of AI is that it will imbue machines with the ability to spot patterns from data, and make decisions faster and better than humans do. What happens if they make worse decisions faster? Governments need to pause and take stock of the societal repercussions of allowing machines over a few decades to replicate human skills that have been evolving for millions of years.”
A nerdocratic oath(Scott Aaronson) — “I will never allow anyone else to make me a cog. I will never do what is stupid or horrible because “that’s what the regulations say” or “that’s what my supervisor said,” and then sleep soundly at night. I’ll never do my part for a project unless I’m satisfied that the project’s broader goals are, at worst, morally neutral. There’s no one on earth who gets to say: “I just solve technical problems. Moral implications are outside my scope”.”
Privacy is power(Aeon) — “The power that comes about as a result of knowing personal details about someone is a very particular kind of power. Like economic power and political power, privacy power is a distinct type of power, but it also allows those who hold it the possibility of transforming it into economic, political and other kinds of power. Power over others’ privacy is the quintessential kind of power in the digital age.”
The Symmetry and Chaos of the World’s Megacities(WIRED) — “Koopmans manages to create fresh-looking images by finding unique vantage points, often by scouting his locations on Google Earth. As a rule, he tries to get as high as he can—one of his favorite tricks is talking local work crews into letting him shoot from the cockpit of a construction crane.”
This is a long essay in which the RSA announces that, along with its partners (one of which, inevitably, is Google) it’s launching the Future Work Centre. I’ve only selected quotations from the first section here.
From autonomous vehicles to cancer-detecting algorithms, and from picking and packing machines to robo-advisory tools used in financial services, every corner of the economy has begun to feel the heat of a new machine age. The RSA uses the term ‘radical technologies’ to describe these innovations, which stretch from the shiny and much talked about, including artificial intelligence and robotics, to the prosaic but equally consequential, such as smartphones and digital platforms.
What is certain is that the world of work will evolve as a direct consequence of the invention and adoption of radical technologies — and in more ways than we might imagine. Alongside eliminating and creating jobs, these innovations will alter how workers are recruited, monitored, organised and paid. Companies like HireVue (video interviewing), Percolata (schedule setting) and Veriato (performance monitoring) are eager to reinvent all aspects of the workplace.
Indeed, and a lot of what’s going on is compliance and surveillance of workers smuggled in through the back door while people focus on ‘innovation’.
The main problems outlined with the current economy which is being ‘disrupted’ by technology are:
Declining wages (in real terms)
Economic insecurity (gig economy, etc.)
Taken together, these findings paint a picture of a dysfunctional labour market — a world of work that offers little in the way of material security, let alone satisfaction. But that may be going too far. Overall, most workers enjoy what they do and relish the careers they have established. The British Social Attitudes survey found that twice as many people in 2015 as in 1989 strongly agreed they would enjoy having a job even if their financial circumstances did not require it.
The problem is not with work per se but rather with how it is orchestrated in the modern economy, and how rewards are meted out. As a society we have a vision of what work could and should look like — well paid, protective, meaningful, engaging — but the reality too often falls short.
I doubt the RSA would ever say it without huge caveats, but the problem is neoliberalism. It’s all very well looking to the past for examples of technological disruption, but that was qualitatively different from what’s going on now. Organisations can run on a skeleton staff and make obscene profits for a very few people.
I feel like warnings such as ‘the robots are coming’ and ‘be careful not to choose an easily-automated occupation!’ are a smokescreen for decisions that people are making about the kind of society they want to live in. It seems like that’s one where most of us (the ‘have nots’) are expendable, while the 0.01% (the ‘haves’) live in historically-unparalleled luxury.
In summary, the lives of workers will be shaped by more technologies than AI and robotics, and in more ways than through the loss of jobs.
Fears surrounding automaton should be taken seriously. Yet anxiety over job losses should not distract us from the subtler impacts of radical technologies, including on recruitment practices, employee monitoring and people’s work-life balance. Nor should we become so fixated on AI and robotics that we lose sight of the conventional technologies bringing about change in the present moment.
Exactly. Let’s fix 2018 before we start thinking about 2040, eh?
When you go deep enough into philosophy or religion one of the key insights is that everything is temporary. Success is temporary. Suffering is temporary. Your time on earth is temporary.
One way of thinking about this one a day-to-day basis is that everything is a bridge to something else. So that technology that I’ve been excited about since 2011? Yep, it’s a bridge (or perhaps a raft) to get to something else.
Benedict Evans, who works for the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, sends out a great, short newsletter every week to around 95,000 people. I’m one of them. In this week’s missive, he linked to a blog post he wrote about bridging technologies.
A bridge product says ‘of course x is the right way to do this, but the technology or market environment to deliver x is not available yet, or is too expensive, and so here is something that gives some of the same benefits but works now.’
As with anything, there are good and bad bridging technologies. At the time, it can be hard to spot the difference:
In hindsight, though, not just WAP but the entire feature-phone mobile internet prior to 2007, including i-mode, with cut-down pages and cut-down browsers and nav keys to scroll from link to link, was a bridge. The ‘right’ way was a real computer with a real operating system and the real internet. But we couldn’t build phones that could do that in 1999, even in Japan, and i-mode worked really well in Japan for a decade.
It’s all obvious in retrospect, as with the example of Firefox OS, which was developed at the same time I was at Mozilla:
[T]he problem with the Firefox phone project was that even if you liked the experience proposition – ‘almost as good as Android but works on much cheaper phones’ – the window of time before low-end Android phones closed the price gap was too short.
Usually, cheap things add more features until people just ‘make do’ with 80-90% of the full feature set. However, that’s not always the case:
Sometimes the ‘right’ way to do it just doesn’t exist yet, but often it does exist but is very expensive. So, the question is whether the ‘cheap, bad’ solution gets better faster than the ‘expensive, good’ solution gets cheap. In the broader tech industry (as described in the ‘disruption’ concept), generally the cheap product gets good. The way that the PC grew and killed specialized professional hardware vendors like Sun and SGi is a good example. However, in mobile it has tended to be the other way around – the expensive good product gets cheaper faster than the cheap bad product can get good.
Evans goes on to talk about autonomous vehicles, something that he’s heavily invested in (financially and intellectually) with his VC firm.
In the world of open source, however, it’s a slightly different process. Instead of thinking about the ‘runway’ of capital that you’ve got before you have to give up and go home, it’s about deciding when it no longer makes sense to maintain the project you’re working on. In some cases, the answer to that is ‘never’ which means that the project keeps going and going and going.
It can be good to have a forcing function to focus people’s minds. I’m thinking, for example, of Steve Jobs declaring war on Flash. The reasons he gives are disingenuous (accusing Adobe of not being ‘open’!) but the upshot of Apple declaring Flash as dead to them caused the entire industry to turn upside down. In effect, Flash was a ‘bridge’ to the full web on mobile devices.
Using the idea of technology ‘bridges’ in my own work can lead to some interesting conclusions. For example, the Project MoodleNet work that I’m beginning will ultimately be a bridge to something else for Moodle. Thinking about my own career, each step has been a bridge to something else; the most interesting bridges have been those where I haven’t been quite sure what was one the other side. Or, indeed, if there even was an other side…
I do like MIT’s Technology Review. It gives a glimpse of cool future uses of technology, while retaining a critical lens.
Every year since 2001 we’ve picked what we call the 10 Breakthrough Technologies. People often ask, what exactly do you mean by “breakthrough”? It’s a reasonable question—some of our picks haven’t yet reached widespread use, while others may be on the cusp of becoming commercially available. What we’re really looking for is a technology, or perhaps even a collection of technologies, that will have a profound effect on our lives.
Here’s the list of their ‘breakthrough technologies’ for 2018:
3D metal printing
AI for everybody
Dueling neural networks
Zero-carbon natural gas
Perfect online privacy
Materials’ quantum leap
It’s a fascinating list, partly because of the names they’ve given (‘genetic fortune telling’!) to things which haven’t really been given a mainstream label yet. Worth exploring in more details, as they flesh out each on of these in what is a reasonably lengthy article.
I’m certainly attending fewer conferences than I used to, but I thought that was just the changing nature of my work and ways of making a living.
Marco Arment makes some important points in this post about how conferences are just kind of outdated as a concept:
Cost:With flights, lodging, and the ticket adding up to thousands of dollars per conference, most people are priced out. The vast majority of attendees’ money isn’t even going to the conference organizers or speakers — it’s going to venues, hotels, and airlines.
Size:There’s no good size for a conference. Small conferences exclude too many people; big conferences impede socialization and logistics.
Logistics:Planning and executing a conference takes such a toll on the organizers that few of them have ever lasted more than a few years.
Format:Preparing formal talks with slide decks is amassivelyinefficient use of the speakers’ time compared to other modern methods of communicating ideas, and sitting there listening to blocks of talks for long stretches while you’re trying to stay awake after lunch is a pretty inefficient way to hear ideas.
This has always been the case, of course. It’s just that technology-mediated ways of connecting, both synchronously and asynchronously, have improved:
Podcasts are a vastly more time-efficient way for people to communicate ideas than writing conference talks, and people who prefer crafting their message as a produced piece or with multimedia can do the same thing (and more) on YouTube. Both are much easier and more versatile for people to consume than conference talks, and they can reach and benefitfarmore people.
Conferences are by their very nature exclusive and take up a lot of people’s time. There’s still space for them, but I think time is up for the low-quality, just-for-the-sake-of-it conference.
I’m not sure that just because you look at a screen all day means you’ve got a ‘bullshit job’, but this article nevertheless makes some good points:
Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging – what the American anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers … telemarketers, bailiffs”, and the “ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working”.
A large part of the left has always organised itself around work. Union activists have fought to preserve it, by opposing redundancies, and sometimes to extend it, by securing overtime agreements. “With the Labour party, the clue is in the name,” says Chuka Umunna, the centre-left Labour MP and former shadow business secretary, who has become a prominent critic of post-work thinking as it has spread beyond academia. The New Labour governments were also responding, Umunna says, to the failure of their Conservative predecessors to actually live up to their pro-work rhetoric: “There had been such high levels of unemployment under the Tories, our focus was always going to be pro-job.”
Instead, say those who advocate a ‘post-work’ future, we should be thinking beyond the way our physical and psychological environment is structured.
Town and city centres today are arranged for work and consumption – work’s co-conspirator – and very little else; this is one of the reasons a post-work world is so hard to imagine. Adapting office blocks and other workplaces for other purposes would be a huge task, which the post-workists have only just begun to think about. One common proposal is for a new type of public building, usually envisaged as a well-equipped combination of library, leisure centre and artists’ studios. “It could have social and care spaces, equipment for programming, for making videos and music, record decks,” says Stronge. “It would be way beyond a community centre, which can be quite … depressing.”
We get the future we deserve. So if we keep on doing the same old, same old when it comes to the way we organise work, we’ll end up with the same kind of structures around it.