Protopian Education Two: Responding to Info-Technological Disruption

“Modernity is disruptive, and I endorse that.”
— Emmanuel Macron

How Schooling Was Future-Shocked

Alvin Toffler’s old term “future shock ” ever applied to anything, it should be to education under the emerging Internet society. Every aspect of life is being transformed by technology with stupendous speed—so how can large and rigid institutions like education possible develop and adapt in tune? How can they not be “future shocked”—i.e., taken by surprise by unexpected winds of change?

Technological disruption is when the introduction of new innovations and technologies change the circumstances so that existing companies and institutions are suddenly ill-equipped to function as they did, even if the technological advance was, in and of itself, something “good”. The market can be disrupted. Governance can be disrupted.

And education can be disrupted. Let’s look at an example. Less than a generation ago, the average youth in the United States spent no time on the Internet. Zero hours.

Today, they spend about 9 hours online—on average; a large percentage thus spend more. That is about the same as the time spent on sleep; leaving about 6 hours of waking offline activities per day. And we haven’t yet counted the time it takes to have meals, which is about an hour. Discounting weekends, the average 15-year-old in the same country spends about 7 hours and 30 minutes a day on education, including going to class.

If you do the math, at least a part of the education activity overlaps with being online. A part of this may be explained by online studying. But a large part—and as teachers in many countries can attest—is simply explained by the fact that the youth are online during class and while studying, doing other things altogether. In a very concrete sense, connected mobile devices disrupt learning in the classroom, competing for the same attention span as the teacher. This development occurred quite inconspicuously; it snuck up on populations around the world; and today it dominates the lives of so many people, young ones especially. Different stances have been taken towards this development.

Emmanuel Macron, the French President, while embracing disruption in the above quote, apparently did not embrace disrupted classrooms—and banned the use of cellphones in French schools in 2017.

Around the world, systems of education are being “future shocked”. How can and should education respond and adapt?

The Price for Cyber Life

The disharmonies created by the pressures of new emerging technologies—and the informational revolution in particular—are not limited to disturbances of the classroom. Indeed, in a profound manner, the ground is shifting in ways that carry far beyond educational settings; but they ripple back into the classroom and learning situations.

In this article, I want to focus on possible solutions, but let us begin with a brief diagnostics of the situation. Note, however, that all of these issues are still being debated and interpreted in different manners.

  • Attention hijack. The average smartphone user (in the U.S.) unlocks the device 150 times a day, according to one study. Given that it takes about half a minuteto regain attention in traffic after using a phone, this amounts to over one full hour of lost or lowered attention per day.
  • Smartphones affect cognitive functioning? Although direct empirical evidence of effects of cognition and intelligence were still inconclusive in 2017, it is well known that IQ levels in younger populations in developed countries have started going down (after going up each generation during the last century). According to some observers, this may be linked to the increased use of media. One recent influential studyclaims to conclude that this is not due to genetic effects (that higher IQ people have fewer children than lower IQ people), but to environmental effects (something has changed in people’s way of life). If smartphones affect cognitive functioning, this naturally affects education and learning.
  • Health effects (mental and physical) of increased media use. American Psychological Association (APA) claims: “Excessive media use in children has been associated with a number of undesirable health outcomes, such as reduced sleep, increased obesity, and language and social emotional delays”.
  • Information overload. The average amount of information that people with Internet connections access and are exposed to has increased dramatically, which is potentially highly empowering. But information takes energy and time to process, and can thereby causestress, anxiety, distraction, and confusion. Case in point, there are many theories and opposing views on this topic, too, with further research needed in experimental psychology and cognitive science.
  • The growth of digital underclasses. In the “attention economy”, the ability to grab, keep, and harness the attention of others creates a highly unequal distribution of where our attention flows, with many people always relegated to being onlookers, the so-called “consumtariat” (those who only “consume” what others produce in the attention economy). This fosters new forms of class structures.
  • Digital divides. The classical discussions of “digital divide” concerns issues of groups in society that have less access to and knowledge of digital technology. Today, another form of digital divide is increasing: For instance, in the U.S., Hispanic and black children spend about 13 hours in front of screens (watching more TV, playing video games, social media etc.), with obvious negative effects upon psychical and mental health as well as psycho-social development. The relationship to information and IT also reinforces (informational) inequalities.
  • Polarization and information bubbles. Through social media, self-selection of where time and attention are directed, and reinforcing algorithms, people are separated into media bubbles, so that worldviews drift apart and become more antagonistic to each other. This reinforces not only conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific movements like “flat earth”, but also political polarization, leading to lowering levels of trust across political divides.
  • Privacy and cyber security.A large number of new issues of privacy and cyber security become relevant as societies are digitized; from international cyberattacks, to covert mass-surveillance by intelligence agencies, to third-party manipulation of elections, to personal information gathering, to individual hacking of users and “phishing”, to “grooming” of children by sexual predators, to criminality on the “dark web”.
  • Platform capitalism. As major platforms take central positions in the information economy, a limited number of companies acquire undue influence as they are both businesses with particular interests, and platforms of infrastructure which others rely upon; centralizing power and resources in the hands of a few global giants.
  • Destabilization and rioting. As the Arab Spring and its aftermath clearly showed, online activism through social media can both serve democratic movements, and become a tool of out-of-control rioting and bullying, inciting violence and ethnic conflict as the recent developments in Myanmar is a sad testament to. This can destabilize whole countries and economies. Similarly, terrorist movement can use social media for recruiting new members, as the case of ISIS clearly showed. Migration flows likewise become more difficult for states to control, since information about border controls can spread quickly through mobile devices, as was displayed clearly during the 2015 European refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian war.
  • Changing job markets and automation. Nobody knows exactly how and to what extent the labor markets of the coming decades will be transformed—but the consensus is that significant and deep structural changes will occur. This is disruptive in at least two ways: a generation of young, for instance, may expect to become truck drivers like their parents, only to face the onslaught of the full automation—self-driving vehicles. Investments and expectations may be betrayed on a massive scale. Even programmers may face automation by AI. This can make labor cheaper in service markets, creating vast populations below middle-class standards. The second form of disruption lies in the uncertainty of such prognoses; it becomes more difficult for individuals, states, and companies to invest long-term in skills and education.
  • Recurring disruptions of the economy. Even as globalization of goods and people has recently slowed significantly, information flows freely in most countries, as does innovation—and disruptive development continues to accelerate along with the pace of life in general, as arguedby the sociologist Hartmut Rosa.

The list could be made longer—the disruptions of technology are more numerous, vast, and complex than any bullet-list. But these are some widely recognized themes. Taken together, these disruptions can and will shake the foundations of educational institutions around the world. Some of our interviewees, from cyberphilosopher Alexander Bard, to IT magnate Jim Rutt, have expressed the more extreme belief that conventional educational systems will be marginalized and deemed irrelevant by the populations most prone to be successful and innovative in the information age, effectively creating a brain drain from these, as innovators and creatives rely more directly upon web-based and experiential learning.

The business analyst and education-tech entrepreneur Scott Galloway predicts that colleges will soon start to struggle to retain their students, being pressed by attractive online education opportunities offered at lower prices. In other words, the technological shifts pose a challenge not only to the quality and content of education, or to its purpose, but even to the perceived relevance, legitimacy and long-term funding of educational institutions around the world.

If the educational systems fail to adapt to the premises that new technologies bring, this can create a major glitch between the knowledge, skills, personalities, and worldviews that people develop, and the actualities of the world we inhabit. The costs in terms of human suffering—and, indeed, squandered human potential—can be inconceivably large.

As things stand, the educational systems around the world do not have fully developed mechanisms for continuously updating how education is done in the face of technological disruptions.

And, indeed, this is the crux of the matter: The second pathway from the old paradigm of education to the new paradigm involves an active, deliberate, and coordinated effort to make the educational systems not only adapt to the advent of existing technologies, but making them adaptable (and self-adapting) to future disruptions.

One of our interviewees, serial entrepreneur and author Tomas Björkman, refers to the acronym VUCA when describing the development of global society: It is increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

The question naturally presents itself, if we are failing the young generation—and the generations to follow—by insufficiently gearing the educational systems for this kind of future? What could be more confusing and detrimental to human needs of security, stability, and meaning-making, than leaving a whole generation to a world that is more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous than they were prepared for, or made to expect?

Acquaintance with the Future

It is not a far-fetched guess that privileged transnational groups who are more in touch with the dynamics of the emerging world economy will be more prone than others to send their children to future-oriented schools and educational settings. These equip student with understandings, tools, habits, networks, and worldviews to thrive and innovate in the tech-driven world. Small sub-groups of relatively privileged children around the world will thus acquire “acquaintance with the future”, learning to feel playful and curious rather than overwhelmed in times that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

Awecademy, a futuristic venue of education seated in Dubai and Vancouver, offers learning in everything from cryptocurrencies, to understanding exponentiality, to AI and automation, to leveraging networks and social media, to space travel, to tools for self-improvement—based on learning-by-doing projects aiming to improve the world, spurring the sense of agency and initiative in students. The very fact that there is a market for such education underscores that there is a rising demand among the tech-native families that is not being met by conventional schooling systems (which again underscores that the educational systems are under pressure from more modular and decentralized forms of learning).

But access to such “future education” remains rather exclusive. This should likely reinforce a new transnational class structure, related less to wealth and holdings, and more to knowledge, social/professional networks, and access to information technology. As middle class jobs are being pressured by automation, the world divides more into those with a close, native relationship to technology and the financial networks around it—and people in the service sector, supporting the lifestyles of these smaller groups.

The question presents itself: Could better “acquaintance with the future” become a staple of global education? Could populations be educated in ways that prepare them for the complexities and potentials of the Internet Age?

And, indeed—as discussed later in this series of articles—could developing countries leapfrog into stronger positions in the world economy by cultivating such practices? In a sense, could the access to the future be made more inclusive and democratic?

This can and would require concerted efforts by agents at the state level, corporate agents, NGOs, and civil society. But it is not unconceivable.

Future Knowledge on the Curriculum

Whereas curricula in schools are already crowded, and the art is to remove and slim rather than to add and thicken, perhaps it is a conceivable goal that all subjects in school should be tasked with serving future acquaintance. In social science, perhaps it makes sense to understand social networks and the dynamics of disruption and cryptocurrencies; in biology, to understand the debates on genetic engineering and CRISPR technology; in history, to study the arches of increasing complexity and former periods of transition and crisis.

As of today, countries still lack concerted action plans for sensitizing the subjects in school to issues of future society. The everyday life of schooling and education is far removed from the frontiers of technology and changes in society. Despite the best efforts of teachers and students around the world, what is implicitly studied and taught, it can be argued, is a more static, and less dynamic, worldview.

Perhaps a good place to start is to build a high-level community of knowledge across countries; an alliance that shares the best practices and research on how topics and skills—such as those within Awecademy—could be made widely available. Acquaintance with the future could become intrinsic to what it means to get an education. This shift may require its own national commissions to oversee its development, and these may need to draw their expertise from a combination of the educational world, and from within the tech hubs themselves—from the natives of global info tech.

If alliances between tech and the education sector grow stronger, the tech industry could be incentivized and inspired to work more strategically towards educational goals, for instance, by breaking off from the “maximize user time spent on the media”, towards optimizations of user interfaces for improved learning outcomes. This could include such features as an “in school” mode for mobile devices, which would aim to limit distraction—making mobile devices present and incorporated in schools, without necessitating bans like the one in France. The possibilities are many, but without the right high-level alliances, it is difficult to see how they could emerge.

Could a network of such commissions be created around the world? Could they be aligned with other agents of information, technology and accelerating development? Could they identify the major disruptors—and work strategically to turn confusing problems into creative opportunities? In turn, would this help populations around the world to manage their lives in a stranger world, to settle in and thrive in the times ahead? Perhaps, even, to feel at home, turning disruptions into potentials?

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.