Technological predictions as evangelism

Alan Jacobs pointed to a recent talk given by Audrey Watters, which focused on the way that dramatic but (she contends) poorly thought-out predictions about the technological future are meant to shape the future rather than to to predict it in good faith. Her conclusion:

I pay attention to this story, as someone who studies education and education technology, because I think these sorts of predictions, these assessments about the present and the future, frequently serve to define, disrupt, destabilize our institutions. This is particularly pertinent to our schools which are already caught between a boundedness to the past – replicating scholarship, cultural capital, for example – and the demands they bend to the future – preparing students for civic, economic, social relations yet to be determined.

But I also pay attention to these sorts of stories because there’s that part of me that is horrified at the stuff – predictions – that people pass off as true or as inevitable.

“65% of today’s students will be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet.” I hear this statistic cited all the time. And it’s important, rhetorically, that it’s a statistic – that gives the appearance of being scientific. Why 65%? Why not 72% or 53%? How could we even know such a thing? Some people cite this as a figure from the Department of Labor. It is not. I can’t find its origin – but it must be true: a futurist said it in a keynote, and the video was posted to the Internet.

The statistic is particularly amusing when quoted alongside one of the many predictions we’ve been inundated with lately about the coming automation of work. In 2014, The Economist asserted that “nearly half of American jobs could be automated in a decade or two.”“Before the end of this century,” Wired Magazine’s Kevin Kelly announced earlier this year, “70 percent of today’s occupations will be replaced by automation.”

Therefore the task for schools – and I hope you can start to see where these different predictions start to converge – is to prepare students for a highly technological future, a future that has been almost entirely severed from the systems and processes and practices and institutions of the past. And if schools cannot conform to this particular future, then “In fifty years, there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”

Now, I don’t believe that there’s anything inevitable about the future. I don’t believe that Moore’s Law – that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years and therefore computers are always exponentially smaller and faster – is actually a law. I don’t believe that robots will take, let alone need take, all our jobs. I don’t believe that YouTube has been rendered school irrevocably out-of-date. I don’t believe that technologies are changing so quickly that we should hand over our institutions to entrepreneurs, privatize our public sphere for techno-plutocrats.

I don’t believe that we should cheer Elon Musk’s plans to abandon this planet and colonize Mars – he’s predicted he’ll do so by 2026. I believe we stay and we fight. I believe we need to recognize this as an ego-driven escapist evangelism.

I believe we need to recognize that predicting the future is a form of evangelism as well. Sure gets couched in terms of science, it is underwritten by global capitalism. But it’s a story – a story that then takes on these mythic proportions, insisting that it is unassailable, unverifiable, but true.

The best way to invent the future is to issue a press release. The best way to resist this future is to recognize that, once you poke at the methodology and the ideology that underpins it, a press release is all that it is.

As many things do these days, Watters’ talk calls to mind the Controllers in C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man who seek to replace established wisdom with propaganda. Not that established wisdom is always right, of course, but propaganda is no substitute. Watters’ criticism seems to come from a somewhat different place from Lewis’, but there is an interesting overlap.

Readers: what do you think of Watters’ talk? Is she onto something?

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