Racing Robots

This week’s blog is from Kevin Lawver, bona fide geek, certified webhead, eloquent pontificator, and serious-minded CTO at NY-based Planted, a career-building employment platform.  Kevin put down roots in Savannah almost a decade ago and we’re lucky to have him in our community.  Read on as Kevin assesses the future of the U.S. economy and suggests some functional solutions for improvement. FYI – The Creative Coast’s blogspot is Savannah’s sounding board for local thinkers, innovators, wanderers and wonders. Guest bloggers share their thoughts, opinions and creative noodling from all over the map…

.“Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” — Annie Dillard

I’ve been organizing Savannah’s RailsBridge chapter for a few years now. By all accounts, it’s been a success: we’ve run more workshops as a small Southern city than anywhere else in the world except San Francisco, NYC & Boulder/Denver (suck it, Atlanta), introduced over 300 people to programming, helped a baker’s dozen find new careers they didn’t realize were possible, and provided a place for the local tech community to meet and help their neighbors. But, the longer we run these workshops, the more it feels like a rain drop in a forest fire. Introducing people to programming is a great way to get me back in touch with what it feels like to be a beginner, and the students’ excitement and questions about what they should learn next are a great reminder that there is no clear path to success in programming – or in the future of work, which is really what we’re here to talk about. This thought has been tumbling around in my head for years now and has surfaced in a few different venues, but I’ve never really sat down to put it all in text. After World War II, a whole generation entered the middle class thanks to the need for skilled labor to build our industrial future. Factories were humming. Unions were organized and fought for their members. Public highway and other construction projects kept millions of people busy. It was possible for someone who was just willing to work hard and learn a skill to enter, and stay in, the middle class without a college degree. A lot of Americans think it’s somehow possible to go back to that glorious industrial paradise, that we can somehow put all those people back to work in factories that either no longer exist, or have been completely re-staffed with robots. That’s not going to happen. Those days are gone. China didn’t steal all those jobs – robots did. And it’s not just the factories. Wal-Mart’s wholesale destruction of Main Street? Robots. Amazon’s annihilation of small bookstores? You guessed it, robots again.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” — Carl Sagan

Back to programming: it’s the blue collar skilled work for this century. In your spare time, using free resources on the web, you can learn enough to get yourself and your family to the middle class – without a college degree. I did it. A lot of my friends did it. There are at least two generations of great developers who don’t have computer science related degrees – because the web, especially the web at scale, moved faster than university curriculums could keep up. While it’s harder now to go from zero to “job”, it’s still possible, and people still do it all the time. It’s why everyone is so interested in coding bootcamps and why STEM is on the tip of every politician’s tongue when they talk about education. But, turning everyone into a programmer isn’t going to keep the robots at bay, and it’s not going to keep everyone employed when 50-70% of the jobs that exist today just… disappear.

We are all racing robots for our jobs

We are all racing robots for our jobs. Most of us haven’t realized this yet and are about to get trampled and left behind. That sounds dystopian, but the more I think about it, the more apt that image is. The small bookstore owners can tell you about it, so can the store owners that used to have stores on Main Street USA, and our grandparents who used to assemble cars.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.” – Seth Godin

We’ve failed generations of students in preparing them to race robots. We still rely on Industrial Age education methods, meant to churn out obedient little factory workers. Sorry, but we don’t need those anymore. That’s what the robots are for. We are failing our children right now by not teaching them the skills that will keep them ahead of the robots. Teaching everyone to be a programmer isn’t the solution – it’s just the one thing we can point to as being somewhat robot-proof (even though it’s not). We need to break it down further and realize that the economy of the future will have very few places for unskilled labor. Anything that’s done by rote will be automated. And just because you sit in an office and work on a computer, don’t think you’re safe. Don’t think we’ll see robot lawyers, accountants and insurance agents? How much of preparing taxes is really just complex repetition? Quite a bit when you really break it down. Just think of how many jobs will just… not exist. My 50-70% number looks like an understatement now, doesn’t it? The days are already gone where you learn a skill in trade school or in college and then spend your entire career doing that one thing. Even baby boomers held an average of 11 different jobs in their careers, and that number is probably only going to grow. I wouldn’t be surprised if our children end up with an average of 11 different careers during their working lives. So, given all this dystopian information, what do we do about it? How can we prepare the next generation for a world where their jobs will continually disappear?

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”Sir Ken Robinson

We need to change how we educate our children and make it more closely match how they’ll be forced to adapt to an ever-increasing rate of change. That means that rote learning, fact regurgitation, testing as the only tool for measuring fluency… all of those things need to be burned to the ground. In their place, we need to teach:
  • Resiliency, flexibility and problem solving: They will constantly be presented with new problems and will have to come up with solutions based on very little information. We need to teach them how to do just enough research to solve a problem, and I don’t have a word for it, but I’ll call it Minimum Viable Fluency: what’s the minimum amount of knowledge you need to have about a subject in order to solve the problem at hand? I can’t tell you how often I have to go from zero to MVF in order to put out the latest and greatest fire at work.

  • Entrepreneurship: The future of work is most likely a series of freelance gigs that kind of turn into what we think of as a job. There’s not a lot of security in that, so we need to teach them how to find, quantify and exploit opportunities in the market. They need to have all those tools at the ready so they can move, adapt and survive.

  • Teamwork Across Diverse Skills and Experience: The more diverse the set of experiences and outlooks brought to a problem, the more likely it is that the team will find the best possible solution. That means we need to learn how to work with groups with different perspectives, experiences and talents than our own. We can’t build the future without including as many people as possible.

“But, it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope – because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, propose to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” — FDR

All of that brings me back to Savannah. Our lovely city is in a precarious position when it comes to the future I’ve laid out. We have a 26-28% generational poverty rate. That number has stuck like glue for thirty years and shows no sign of budging. All the social programs and services the city, county and state have put in place are barely keeping up have failed to put even a dent in the number. When all of those low-wage jobs get automated away? When the port is 99% automated? When hotels no longer need people to clean toilets or make beds? That 26% will look like a golden age. I wouldn’t be surprised if the poverty rate doubles in the next twenty years. No tax base, no new hotel, parking garage or marathon, will be able to cope. I’m not going to go into the systemic reasons that some people in our city want to have a quarter of our neighbors living in poverty. I don’t care what their reasons are because the outcome of those reasons is unacceptable. It should be unacceptable to the vast majority of us who live here that a full quarter of us are below the poverty line. We are wasting billions of dollars in human potential because we refuse to admit our complicity in the situation and resolve to fix it. The more research I do, and the more I learn about this, the more convinced I am that addressing and fixing Savannah’s poverty is the key to building a Savannah that will thrive through the future of work. If we don’t, the robots will win and our social infrastructure won’t be able to cope with the shock to the system. You would think that I’d be in my backyard digging my bunker to sit out the end of the world, but I’m not. I’m convinced that we can solve these problems if we work together, get creative, and work like hell.

“By all means, break the rules. Break them beautifully, deliberately and well. That is one of the ends for which they exist.” — Robert Bringhurst

Where do we start? It starts with what I said above about education. Those same skills need to be shared across the community. Here are just a few of the things I think we need to focus on:
  • We need to support and grow our small businesses to better take advantage of social media, modern web-based tools, and better capture the 2.6 billion dollars tourists spend in our city every year. Growing those small businesses means they can hire more employees, and we get to keep more of those 2.6 billion dollars in the community.

  • We need to embrace the successes of The STEM Academy at Bartlett and put them into practice at schools all over the system. There’s no excuse to have this internationally-recognized jewel of a school in our city and not use what works there to improve our neighborhood schools.

  • We need brave and daring local leaders to stand up and speak out. Governments act when constituencies are well-organized and loud. Too many of us have been too quiet for too long. That’s going to mean reaching out across Savannah’s well-fortified silos and working with Savannah’s amazing and dedicated non-profits and activists, having uncomfortable conversations, and working together on the things we can agree on, while accepting that there will always be things we don’t.

  • Along with those leaders, more of us need to pay closer attention to the decisions made at every level of government and keep our elected leaders accountable to us, their constituents. If we don’t speak up, they’ll listen to those who do. If we don’t pay attention, they’ll never have to answer for their actions.

  • We need to be better about sharing and celebrating our successes, coming together to learn from our failures, accepting our place in history and coming to peace with it, and then working to make the future brighter for all or our neighbors.

None of these things are impossible. We have a community of creative, committed and energetic people. We have all the human capital we need. We know the tools exist, and we have some local examples of things that work. All we need to do is put them together. I remain, as always, optimistic about the future. Not because I think things will be perfect, because that’s silly. I remain optimistic because I believe in our capacity as human beings, neighbors and friends, to improve and increase our capacities. The greatness of the American Dream is that we accept that our union isn’t perfect and that every day all of us are responsible for making it closer to the more perfect ideal.

“Optimism isn’t principally an analysis of present reality. It’s an ethic. It is not based on denial or rosy thinking. It is a moral posture toward the world we find ourselves in. If everything seems great, there’s no need for optimism. The river of good news just carries you along.” — Josh Marshall

Your partner in a better future, Kevin]]>

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