I’m becoming convinced that the increasing economic disparity in the United States is at least partially due to the radical transformation we are seeing in the availability of extremely efficient and disruptively cheap and powerful machines. Machine intelligence in the form of open-source rules engines can be downloaded and used to create expert systems that can be loaded with facts and programmed with rules to power extremely fast decision making that used to be the exclusive purview of domain expert “knowledge workers.” The effects of Moore’s Law are evident in the increasing pace of this change. Not more than 10 years ago, the solution seemed to be retraining of unskilled labor to do skilled jobs. Five years ago, we started to hear grumblings that the US was not producing enough “STEM” jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – funny because US colleges and universities do educate in Science, Engineering and Math, but Engineering and Technology (especially IT) are where the jobs are at, and IT tends to be overlooked in academic circles.) Even STEM jobs, though, are starting to seem to be in danger. Economies of scale that make cloud services like Amazon EC2 and Microsoft Azure attractive for business also drive on-premises IT workers out of their jobs. These jobs are not replaced by an equal number at the cloud providers, precisely because of the scale and degree of automation of their operations.
This past week, two things happened that are tied directly to this trend: The bizeratti at the World Economic Forum in Davos are apparently convinced that higher education is in the midst of radical disruptive change due to things like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Paul Krugman said the increasing economic disparity in the US is due to our jobs being replaced by machines. Many of the jobs that US universities have been creating over the past 20 years have been feeders into the academic system via graduate school. The prospects for this huge number of Ph.Ds to find tenure-track jobs and retain them in the brutally competitive academic job market are not favorable. And now we are starting to see students default on their student loans because they can’t find jobs, leading to the possibility of another taxpayer-funded bailout of loans. Those students who do get Ph.Ds face the prospect of their potential job pool being severely undercut by the scalability of MOOCs. Why go to a local community college when you can learn about creating software as a service, in video form, from Cal Berkeley? A core concern here: if we start creating superstar professors who teach MOOCs, and people stop attending local, “regular” colleges and universities, how will today’s graduate students get the experience they need to be tomorrow’s superstars? If we say they must dedicate their careers to cutting-edge research instead, how will fields that are more pedagogically focused survive? How will these future research nerds ever learn the practical skills of teaching, so they can communicate their ideas to students?
What do the rise of MOOCs, rising and defaulting student debt, lack of good jobs for highly educated people, increasing economic disparity, and an economic system increasingly powered by arbitrage and technological tricks like high-frequency trading and hidden risk tranche-based pyramid schemes point to?
We need something real to invest in, that thing should be human fulfillment through education and the arts, and we are losing the means to pay for it because there are no jobs to support it. I think we are transitioning to a system where the very wealthy (businesses and individuals) need to be extremely heavily taxed, world wide (so there is no place they can hide their wealth – this implies a world government to enforce it. Let’s get over the “new world order” paranoia right now – that ship has sailed.) in order to pay the newly “job”-less class to become educated and fulfilled in other ways. To prevent massive social disruption, this pay should likely be focused to create “artificially” high-paying jobs that will do good, things like working in organic local agriculture, renewable energy, infrastructure repair and K-20 education. The US education system needs to be transformed to again be highly publicly-funded, and we should probably start paying people to go to school instead of charging them huge tuitions and forcing them to accrue debt they have little hope of repaying. We should begin a project to massively publicly fund the arts, basic science research, infrastructure rebuilding and renewable energy creation.
Let’s think of ways to fix things, and let’s stop undercutting these ideas before they can work by labeling them with outdated, ignorant, reactionary 20th century wolf-whistle terms like “socialism.” Did I just describe a totalitarian communist world government in overly-rosy terms? My hope is that equally disruptive technologies like social networking, anonymity networks like Tor, and alternative currencies like BitCoin can put some reins on the power of government and big companies.
Update: It appears that Robert Reich is thinking about some related topics today.
Update 2: I guess there has to be some kind of system of competitiveness or incentive in order to drive people to excellence and prevent the kind of stagnation that eventually destroyed the USSR. How that fits into this proposed new system is not clear to me. I suspect it’s do-able, especially if we do not eliminate the free market, but instead tax it at a reasonable rate. The media and culture would also need to be gradually changed to make intellectualism a highly valued trait. Superprofessor MOOC instructors with huge followings might go a long way toward that goal. Can you imagine a world in which Larry Lessig is more famous than LeBron James? That seems like a good thing to me.