Wednesday, June 29, 2016

9/100: Digital Economy and The New Imperatives for Learning

It may seem I am making contradictory statements when I say that learning has to change and that humanities must be back in agenda. This is my attempt at a clarification.

Humanities is not the rusty old subjects without practical significance. We have made it so, and built a modern education system overtly with a technical - technology, business, accounting etc - focus. This served us well in the past thirty years, but as things change at the workplace, this needs to change.

Now, this is not a defence of Liberal Education, now fashionable among American writers. Following Eric Hobsbawm, I tend to believe that Anglo-Saxon education systems of the past, based on a narrow classics curriculum, made culture a luxury product, for a few, of the few, a sign of class privilege rather than opportunity. Against this, technical education opened the gates of opportunity, and was rightly embraced. But, we may have overdone this and now is the time to re-imagine again.

We are staring at a serious social problem, even if we live in denial. Take, for example, the recent referendum in Britain about European Union membership, in which the majority of the voters voted to exit the EU. It is an apparently emotional, and therefore irrational, decision, with all sorts of economic and social ramifications. Post-referendum, there is a noticeable tendency among the pundits to rationalise xenophobia, or fear of immigrants in plain English, and accept the vote as a reasonable reaction against the increased migration in the wake of European integration. However, there is a reason for the reason itself  - the working classes are feeling squeezed and blaming immigrants for the loss of jobs and opportunities - and this reasoning is misdirected, but no pundit would want to talk about it. This is not about immigrants, but digitisation and globalisation which is eating into jobs and creating global supply chains. The incoming immigrants are visible, and therefore blamed: They come, however, as their lives are disrupted by the same forces that make the people in developed societies queasy, globalisation, digitisation and some cases, wars, fought through digital means. 

And, as reasons have reasons themselves, consequences beget consequences too. The 'Brexit' would resonate far beyond the temporary blips in the currency markets. We have to learn to live in low-growth, no-jobs societies, and that is not just in Britain. However many walls we want to build, they are not very effective keeping jobs in, even if they manage to keep immigrants out. And, unless we start getting a perspective about what is happening to our societies, adjust to post-jobs future, become comfortable with our common humanity and start viewing the world with sympathy, we are likely to blame foreigners, either next door or in a faraway country, build elaborate justifications about that behaviour and would eventually go back to conflict and colonial quests in our futile search for growth.

However, despite all this, Digital Economy is not a threat: Like all technological progress, it is an opportunity. And, besides, technological progress is irreversible, though its use is shaped by the choices we make. All like all pivot points in history, we have enormous power right now, and also face enormous danger. We can, with all those technological possibilities at hand, make history, as the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs claim to be doing from time to time. But, without an understanding of the world, we are doing it, to paraphrase a famous expression, not in circumstances of our choosing, as the Brexit vote has just shown. That, understanding our choices and shaping our circumstances, is the job of the humanities.

In a democratic society, thinking can not be abrogated. In a service economy, where human beings are having to compete all the time with robots and prove their own worthiness, relationships are vital. In the world of instant information, deep knowledge and ability to connect two disparate pieces of information to arrive at an intuitive understanding, is the key. At the time of mechanised processes, creating new possibilities is the human function. And, above all, making choices, ethical and long term, far into the future beyond the scenario-based understanding of the immediate consequences of a Robot, is the essence of human condition.

This is where humanities come in. This is not about disciplinary walls built of specialised language, a culture shaped by distance from 'practical' affairs and choices of real life, which makes humanities such a luxury and a faraway thing. But, it is humanities in action, not separate from technological understanding but very much inside it. Eric Hobsbawm would claim that this is culture the Viennese way, an enabler of sympathetic capitalism, an ability that allows us to make choices appropriately not just for our immediate benefits but also for generations ahead. 

This, I think, is the new imperatives for learning. As jobs fail to come by, our reaction has been to create a more technical education, despite the failed attempts so far. As voters vote to build a wall, as in the UK and perhaps soon in the United States too, we justify and cite the squeezed conditions, without ever exploring the choices we are making. These, and the choices we have to make about environment, weapons technology, diplomacy, business and society, point to the need for new abilities, or Skills, if you wish to call them so: The ability to think for oneself, to discover the beauty in the world around us, the ability to cooperate with other human beings and to be able to bring change! These are the new imperatives for learning in the Digital Economy, and this is the task for the humanities, re-imagined!





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