A friend and colleague responded to my post about driverless cars and noted that the social change aspects would be large, considering the role of driving as a key employer of many people. I had noted that my original post was not saying whether cars were good or bad, delaying such discussion to later.
Now it is later. Let’s talk.
As we continue to automate certain industries, we are going to reduce opportunities for humans to undertake those tasks. The early stages of the industrial revolution developed to the production lines and, briefly in the history of our species, there was employment to be found for humans who were required to do the same thing, over and over, without necessarily having to be particularly skilled. This separation marked a change of the nature of work from that of the artisan, the crafter, the artist and that emerging aspect of the middle class: the professional.
While the late 20th and early 21st century versions of such work are relatively safe and, until recently, relatively stable employers, early factory work was harsh, dangerous, often unfair and, until regulation was added, unethical. If you haven’t read Upton Sinclair’s novel on the meat-packing industry, “The Jungle”, or read of the New York milk scandals, you may have a vision of work that is far tidier than the reality for many people over the years. People died, for centuries, because they were treated as organic machine parts, interchangeable and ultimately disposable. Why then did people do this work?
Because they had to. Because they lacked the education or opportunity to do anything else. Because they didn’t want to starve. Because they wanted to look after their families. This cycle plays out over and over again and reinforces the value of education. Education builds opportunity for this generation and every one that comes afterwards. Education breaks poverty traps and frees people.
No-one is saying that, in the post-work utopia, there will not be a place for people to perform a work-like task in factories because, for some reason, they choose to but the idea is that this is a choice and the number of choices that you have, right now, tend to broaden as you have more recognised skills and qualifications. Whether it is trade-based or professional, it’s all education and, while we have to work, your choices tend to get more numerous with literacy, numeracy and the other benefits of good education.
Automation and regulation made work safer over time but it also slowly reduced the requirement to use humans, as machines became more involved, became more programmable and became cheaper. Manual labour has been disappearing for decades. Everywhere you look, there are dire predictions of 40% of traditional jobs being obsolete in as short as ten years.
The driverless car will, in short order, reduce the need for a human trucking industry from a driver in every truck to a set of coordinators and, until we replace them in turn, loading/unloading staff. While driving may continue for some time, insurance costs alone are going to restrict its domain and increase the level of training required to do it. I can see a time when people who want to drive have to go through almost as much training as pilots and for the same reason: their disproportionate impact on public safety.
What will those people do who left school, trained as drivers, and then spent the rest of their lives driving from point A to point B? Driving is a good job and can be one that people can pursue out to traditional retirement age, unlike many manual professions where age works against you more quickly. Sadly, despite this, a driverless car will, if we let it on the roads, be safer for everyone as I’ve already argued and we now have a tension between providing jobs for a group of people or providing safety for them and every other driver on the road.
The way to give people options is education but, right now, a lot of people choose to leave the education system because they see no reason to participate, they aren’t ready for it, they have a terrible school to go to, they don’t think it’s relevant or so many other reasons that they made a totally legitimate choice to go and do something else with their lives.
But, for a lot of people, that “something else” is going to disappear as surely as blacksmiths slowly diminished in number. You can still be a blacksmith but it’s not the same trade that it was and, in many places, it’s not an option at all anymore. The future of human work is, day by day, less manual and more intellectual. While this is heavily focussed on affluent nations, the same transition is going on globally, even if at different speeds.
We can’t just say “education is the answer” unless we accept how badly education has failed entire countries of people and, within countries, enter communities, racial sub-groups or people who don’t have money. Education has to be made an answer that can reach billions and be good while it does it. When we take away opportunities, even for good reasons, we have to accept that people just don’t go away. They still want to live, to thrive, to look after their families, to grow, and to benefit from living in the time and place that they do. The driverless car is just a more obvious indicator of the overall trend. That trend won’t stop and, thus, we’re going to have to deal with it.
A good educational system is essential for dealing with providing options to the billions of people who will need to change direction in the future but we’re not being honest until we accept that we need to talk about opportunity in terms of equity. We need to focus on bringing everyone up to equal levels of opportunity. Education is one part of that but we’re going to need society, politicians, industry and educators working together if we’re going to avoid a giant, angry, hopeless unemployed group of people in the near future.
Education is essential to support opportunity but we have to have enough opportunities to provide education. Education has to be attractive, relevant, appropriate and what everyone needs to make the most of their lives. The future of our civilisation depends upon it.
R U Ok? Day (September the 11th) is coming up soon, with its focus on reaching out and starting conversations with people that you think might not be ok, or might benefit from a friendly conversation. It’s a great initiative and, as someone who has struggled with mental illness, I’m so happy to see us talking openly about this. For me to out myself as having suffered with depression is no big thing, as I discuss it in other parts of the ‘net, but I realise that some of you might now look at what I do and what I say in a different light.
And, if you do, I have to tell you that you need to change the way that you think about these things. A very large number of humans will go through some form of mental issue in their lives, unsurprisingly given the levels of stress that we put ourselves under, the struggle some people have just to survive and the challenges that lie ahead of us as a rather greedy species on a finite globe. So, yes, I’ve suffered from depression but it is an illness. It is treatable and, when it is treated and managed, then you can’t tell that I have problems. In fact, like many people with the problem, even when I’m suffering, you wouldn’t really know. Nobody asks to get mentally ill so stigmatising, isolating and discriminating against people with a treatable mental condition is not just wrong, it’s pretty stupid. So let’s get beyond this and start talking, openly.
That’s where RUOK? is great because it gives you a day and some agency to reach out to someone who seems a little … off and ask them if they’re ok. Trust me when I say that 99% of them will appreciate it. Yes, 1% might give you some grief but if I knew a bet would pay off 99% of the time, I’d take it. The web site has some great tips for starting conversations so please read them if you’re thinking about doing this. (Pro tip: starting a conversation with “You should just cheer up” is not a great way to start. Or finish. In fact, just scratch that and try again.)
I am very open with my students, which I know some people think is potentially unprofessional, and I am a strong believer in cognitive apprenticeship. We are, pretty much, all the same in many respects and me pretending that everything I do comes fully formed and perfect from my amazing brain is a lie. My wisdom, such as it is, is the accumulated memory of the mistakes I’ve made that haven’t killed me yet. My students need to know that the people around them struggle, wonder, stress out and, quite frequently, rise above it all to keep on doing wonderful and beautiful things. I am still professional but I am honest and I am human.
I want to share with all of you something that I wrote on the death of Robin Williams, which I’ve edited slightly for language, but it’s been shared a lot over my other social feeds so it obviously resonates with people. However, many of my students won’t have seen it because I keep my private social life and ‘work’ social media separated. So here it is. I hope that you find it useful and, if you need help, maybe nudges you to help, and if you know someone you’re worried about, it inspires you to ask them “R U OK?”
Mental illness is a poisonous and weird thing. If your eyes changed function, you’d see things differently. When your brain changes function, everything gets weird – and the only impression you have of the perceptual world is suddenly flawed and untrustworthy. But it’s a biochemical issue like diabetes – regulatory systems that aren’t working properly and cannot just be “got over” by thinking happily. Ask a diabetic whether they’ve “really tried” to handle their sugar and see how far that gets you. 🙂
I wrote something, years ago, that I’ve never posted, to try and explain why some people just can’t stay. The nastiest thing about mental illness is that it can show you a world and a way of thinking that makes suicide apparently logical and, even more sadly, necessary. If you saw that world, then maybe you wouldn’t stay either. This doesn’t make it easier on the survivors but it’s important to recognise the role that an actual illness plays here. That f***ing ba***rd, cancer, takes people from us all the time but it at least has the decency to wield the knife itself. Depression puts the knife in the hands of its victim and makes it look like calculated agency, which hurts the people left behind even more.
There is no magic bullet for helping people with mental illness. Some need visible support. Some need solitude. Some need to work. Some drown in it. That’s because mental illness affects people, in all of their variety and their glorious irrationality, and I am no more a poster child for depression than anyone else. I can’t even tell you how to help me and, given how much I communicate, that’s the most irritating thing of all. But I do know that the ongoing support of caring people who are watching and listening makes a big difference and those of you who are aware and supporting, you keep up that good work! (And thank you, on behalf of the people who are still here because other people helped.)
It’s a sad day with Robin WIlliams passing but this is only a part of him. It’s a sad and mad part of him and I wish it hadn’t happened but I won’t let it define him, because his struggles were a part of him and his contribution to laughter and joy were so much greater. The least I can do is to see past his ‘mental diabetes’ to celebrate his actual talent and contribution. And offer my deepest sympathies and condolences to his family and friends.
Rest well, Robin.