A Slippery Slope

Fortunately, the ark didn’t have to worry about any of
those pesky fictional icebergs…

Over the past couple of days the concept of professionalism seems to keep popping up, usually after it’s been lit on fire.  It began when someone posted a quote on Facebook based on a Twitter storm.  It was described as ‘interesting’ on Facebook and lots of people on there were very happy to prop it up.  I would have called it asinine.  My first instinct was to write back, ‘it’s important to remember that amateurs built the starship Enterprise but professionals built the space shuttle.’  But I didn’t.


Beyond the amateurs-are-really-good-at-building-things-that-don’t-exist thinking, I was more put off by the implicit attack on professionalism.  Ironically, it’s the lack of professionalism in our news that’s accelerating this anti-professional bias.  When you share media created to force an opinion rather than declare facts, you’re pouring gas on the ignorance fire.  From patients spending half an hour on Google and then telling their doctors what their self-diagnosis is and demanding they medicate them for it (self assured arrogance is a wonderful byproduct of everyone’s-an-expert), to shady business men taking over super powers (dido), the idea that we don’t need professionals any more because we all have access to information, and therefore know everything, is rampant.


The problem with our information deluge is that it isn’t vetted.  With no oversight or fact checking, alternative facts become facts when they are repeated often enough.  Opinions become truths when you find enough people to repeat them.  Part of this comes down to the shear volume of information around us.  We’re living in a tsunami of data, and we’re very bad at curating it.

That quote is from 2010.  The revolution happened, but it hasn’t been the touchy-feely future of knowledge that we thought it would be.  Maybe AI can sort it out, because we’ve made a mess of it.

The flood of social media data has us awash in information, much of it crap.  With a waning (professional) fourth estate and everyone on the planet rapidly getting to the point where they can broadcast their opinions no matter how factually bereft, we are living in dangerous times.  There was some hope, early on, that crowd sourcing would help manage this onslaught, but it turns out a large proportion of the crowd doing the sourcing are idiots.


Our willingness to absorb untruths are amplified by the idea that we customize our social media feeds based on our own beliefs.  Doing so turns our ‘news’ intake into an echo chamber of ideas that only support our world view; a sort of self-fulfilling propaganda.  This quickly takes on Orwellian proportions as people who once kept their racist thoughts to themselves suddenly find themselves at the virtual equivalent of a Clan meeting.  Those embarrassing prejudices are suddenly worth broadcasting.  This process is a powerful one, and its tail is wagging the political dog in 2017.

Alternative is right – this ‘headline’ photo is taken from a
2007 HBO film.  Welcome to 2017. 



It isn’t just the alt-right who are happy to take this neo-propaganda and make use of it.  With no oversight, everyone with a strong opinion is happy to take pictures from a film and publish them as if they are news, just to convince people that what they think is right.


Way back in the naughties (’06 I think) one of my media studies students brought in a video that prompted tears and a lot of conversation.  The inevitability of what they proposed in that video caused a lot of anxiety in our class, me included.  At the time, social media barely existed so this seemed like a real stretch, but in the dystopian future they describe in the film the traditional news media has fallen apart, eaten by the internet.  What’s left is a shallow, sensationalist mediascape that caters to the quality of thought most people aspire to.  In the past year I’ve begun to think that this quality of thought isn’t anywhere near where I thought it was.


The description at the end might be starting to feel all too familiar:
“At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper and broader and more nuanced than anything available before. But at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational, but EPIC is what we wanted…”  
It’s what we have today.


We’re too busy, distracted and incompetent to vet and even critically analyze the media that engulfs us, and we’re too cheap to hire people to do it for us.  It turns out we weren’t just paying for information from the fourth estate, we were also paying for critical analysis.  But if we can get sensationalism for free why pay for hard truths?


A philosophical underpinning to all of this is the idea that anyone can do or say anything they want simply by wanting to do it.  Effort to develop mastery in a skill (ie: professionalism) is frowned upon.  We’re told by wealthy people that doctors, politicians, teachers and other professionals are shysters who are trying to take advantage of us, and we buy it!  We idolize the mega-rich who are so simply because of the situation of their birth rather than because of any professionally developed skill.  The lies we tell ourselves every day are part of a vicious cycle made possible by an information revolution that made everything except learning the truth easier.

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Deep Learning AI & the Future of Work

Originally published on Dusty World in April, 2016:  temkblog.blogspot.com/2016/04/deep-learning-ai-future-of-work.html

 

Most jobs have tedium as a prerequisite.  No one does tedium
better than a machine, but we still demand that kind of work
for humans… to give them self worth?

This isn’t the first time our compulsive urge to assign monetary value to survival has struck me as strange.  This time it was prompted by an article on deep learning AI and how machines are close to resolving many jobs that are currently reserved for human beings (so that they can feel relevant).  We like to think employment is what makes us worthwhile, but it really isn’t, and hasn’t been for a long time.

The graph above is from that article and it highlights how repetitive jobs are in recession as machines more effectively take over those roles.  As educators this leaves us in a tricky situation because we oversee an education system modelled on factory routines that is designed to fit students into repetitive labour (cognitive for the ‘smart’ office bound kids, manual for the other ones).

 
 

How can an education system modelled on Taylorist principles produce students able to succeed in the Twenty-First Century?  It can’t, because it can’t even imagine the world those students are going to live in.  There is a lot of push back in educational theory around the systemic nature of school administration, but I see little movement from management other than lip service.  Educational stakeholders from unions to ministries and even parents like our conservative education system just the way it is.

Between neuroscience and freeing ourselves of academic prejudices
(ie: creativity happens in art class), we could be amplifying what
human beings are best at instead of stifling it. (from Newsweek)

In the meantime, people who are taught to sit in rows, do what they’re told and hit clearly defined goals are becoming increasingly irrelevant.  We have machines that do those very things better than any human can, and they’ll only be doing more of it in the future.

Ironically, just at the time where human beings might have technically developed a way out of having to justify their survival all the time they are also crippling their ability to do what humans do best.  In recent years creativity,as critically assessed in children, is diminishing.  The one thing we are able to do better than machines is being systemically beaten out of us by outmoded education systems and  machines that cognitively infect us with their own shortcomings!


Machines offer us powerful tools for a wide variety of tasks.  I use digital technology to express my interest in the natural world, publish, and learn, but for the vast majority of people digital technology is an amplifier of bad habits and ignorance.  Many people use the personalization possible in digital technology to amplify their own prejudices, juice their brains like Pavlovian dogs in empty games, and all while living in a cocoon of smug self justification.

Just when we’re able to leverage machines to free human beings from the tedium of working for a living, those same machines are shaping people to be as lazy, directionless and self assured as they wish.

In the meantime the education system keeps churning out widget people designed for a century ago and the digital attention economy turns their mental acuity into a commodity.


Rise of the machines indeed.


 

 

A nice bit of alternate future, but the description at the end is chilling – it’s how I see most people using the internet: “At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper and broader and more nuanced than anything available before. But at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational, but EPIC is what we wanted…”

Follow Opportunities, Not Dreams

I’m up early chasing through UK documents on their worrying lack of digital skills.  A typical UK worker falls behind many other country’s workers in basic IT skills, and I suspect the same is true of many Western countries.  When the digital economy is one of the few bright spots, Western students seem to be turning away from it (unless it’s video game design, everyone wants to be a video game designer – as long as it means playing video games and not actually learning how to code).

We can’t fill jobs in computer related fields, but less and less students are considering the pathway.

One of the prime movers in this shift away from viable employment follows an idea on bad advice I saw from a tech teacher at our school:

“Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it.”


As a general rule, parents and students are guided in school to do what makes them happy.  We fill up courses playing hockey, taking photos and give out credits for things kids are doing at home anyway.  It makes for shiny, happy, low stressed students and a great graduation rate, but none of it is really preparing students for the workplace.

We are frequently updated with the number of students from our school who have been accepted to university (only university, the rest don’t matter).  We never see any stats on how many of them finish the degrees they were accepted for.  I suspect that stat isn’t very flattering.  An even less flattering stat would be an income check at the age of thirty.  I wonder what the employment prospects for those university bound students are.  What is their quality of life trying to pay off debts larger than they’ve ever been in history?  Yet that’s where all our ‘good’ students are directed.

I dropped out of high school and became a millwright because I had smart hands and the apprenticeship fell into my lap.  When I didn’t feel like that was intellectually stressful enough I tackled university and then chased the opportunities that arose from it.  I didn’t become a teacher because it was some kind of magical calling, I became a teacher because I was chasing opportunities.

Much of the advice students get in school are from life-long academics.  People who went to school, attended university, and then immediately became employed for life at school again (sometimes the same school they graduated from!)  These people with their carefully proscribed lives don’t experience the world the way the rest of us do.  When I see them telling students to ‘do what makes you happy’ and ‘follow your dreams!’, I cringe.


My son has recently been wondering about getting a job so he can manage his own money, he’s eleven.  I told him, ‘do you know why they call it work?’  He looked at me for a moment and then said, ‘because it isn’t for fun?’  Out of the mouths of babes.  I only wish school guidance would realize that basic truth.

You can derive a great deal of satisfaction out of your work without it being some kind of romantic calling.  Few people live the lives of celebrities, playing a game or making art and wallowing in the money derived from it.  Insinuating that kids could be that person is dishonest at worst and deceiving at best, but how would you know if you’ve never had to struggle for work?  We can all find satisfying and challenging work if we push ourselves and chase opportunity.  Train yourself to better chase opportunity and you’ll find your circumstances will continue to change and improve.  One day you might find yourself in a well paid, challenging profession that you’d never have predicted for yourself.

Or, you know, maybe making a living…

Quinn Norton gives the blather some context.  Hobbies are for fun, your career
is probably not your hobby, and that’s fine, it’s how the world works.