A Liberal Art of Austerity and Automation

Posted: April 23, 2017 in Culture and movies, Economy, Education, Latino Politics, Power, Race, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized

Any work that can be codified and subject to algorithms will probably be automated. So, accounting will go but financial advice will not. This makes the benefits of liberal arts education even more important than it’s ever been. Critical thinking, good communication skills, and the ability to collaborate is what will make people employable in this new automated economy.

But a world with more and more jobs performed by computers and robots will mean fewer and fewer jobs where liberal arts skills are prioritized. And that means that there will be a fierce competition for those jobs. The question then becomes, who will have those jobs? Will they go primarily to white men of upper class background? As it stands now, universities like LIU and Fordham will be under assault by these abstract and structural forces, but the ivies most likely are not. The question for students today is ‘Who will have access to those elite critical thinking positions in the future?’ That is what makes places like CUNY, LIU, and Fordham so important. That is where immigrants, women, minorities, and working class people can acquire the education to challenge the monochromatic elite that relies on a ‘meritocracy’ and on liberal arts education to manage and lead in this emerging automated economy.

franklin-institute-robots-baxter-daryl-peveto-940x540

We are not yet able to replace most jobs with computers and robots.

Robots have a limited ability to perceive and reason about their surroundings.  Computers have made huge advances in automating those human tasks that can be well described by a set of rules.  But, despite continuing advances in AI, the challenges of applying computers and robots to tasks requiring flexibility, judgment, and common sense are still quite large. 

The reason is that our actions are guided by two very different kinds of knowledge.  Explicit knowledge is formal, codified, and can be readily explained to people and captured in a computer program.   Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is the kind of knowledge we are often not aware we have, and is therefore difficult to transfer to another person, let alone to a machine.  Tacit knowledge is generally learned through personal interactions and practical experiences.  Everyday examples include speaking a language, riding a bike, driving a car, and easily recognizing many different objects and animals.” 

But the push in the modern capitalist economy is to replace humans. Machines don’t get sick, need vacation or health benefits, and can work around the clock.  Thus, we have little time. While we wait for these things to happen, we should minimize the impact on our ways of life and on social equity. More machine-based work should mean that we humans benefit from greater productivity and wealth. Those surpluses should be used to make our lives better. We should work a lot less than we do now and enjoy those economic benefits more broadly in society. And we should make sure that those who rise to the remaining high education jobs, that will command this robotic economy, are representative of our diverse society. Anything less will make these emerging automatizing trends a true nightmare. The battlefield in this war between robots and humans begins with a fierce competition for the remaining, elite, critical thinking jobs.

The key is that whether computers and robots take most of our jobs sooner rather than much later, the struggle to define who will feel the brunt of this economic revolution is beginning to take place now…in the university. The corporatization of the university represents a tangled struggle, on one side, with those who want to educate everyone to become critical thinkers, able to judge and take action about these economic changes. On the other side are those who see no reason to “waste” precious resources on those who have not “need” or “ability” to reach those stratified heights. The latter are working class, minority, and immigrant students who should be happy to accept careers as technicians in this economy rather than as leaders and judges of how the economy can best move forward. Better to train them for jobs as bookkeepers, retail sales and health technologists, even if those jobs are likely to disappear. They have little support for giving that population an education they can only use to lead in this new automated economy as well as to challenge the accepted public agenda that there is very little we can do to ensure life is just and equitable for all.

Probability that robots will take jobs

Not all the players in this struggle have a firm and conscious understanding of what lies ahead. They are not meeting behind closed doors to coordinate their efforts. But they most certainly have bought into Neo-liberal austerity policies, whose bony hands land heaviest and most destructively on the working classes and minority population. They are also more likely to accept the idea that the automation of the economy is not only inevitable but one whose impact is impossible to soften with public policy.

 

 

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