In the years before Betsy DeVos decided that public education was unnecessary, there was a big push to get more young students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math: STEM. Later, my friend John Maeda wanted to add an “A” for art, and call it STEAM.
The reason for the push was that the world was changing rapidly, and the changes were from the Industrial Revolution — 4.0. Computerized science was making great leaps forward. Our knowledge of how things worked and how to build things was increasing at such a fast pace that it was difficult for most people to understand or to cope. There were too many Liberal Arts or Literary majors who came out of college without any job skills. The US needed more STEM-educated people to help build our new world.
Many people were attracted by this reasoning and technology has flourished during the last decade. There have been amazing advances in medicine, Artificial Intelligence, genetics, and gene editing. We have been able to develop a vaccine for a pandemic in less than a year. New developments in communication technology allowed many of us to keep our jobs, keep in touch with our families, and keep ourselves entertained while we were hiding from the virus. The pace of technological changes that will alter almost every area of our lives continues to quicken.
However, the pandemic made it clear that the benefits of these advances were not being enjoyed evenly across racial or socio-economic groups. As usual, those who had more resources available to them benefitted more than those who were barely getting by before the pandemic spread all around the world.
As of yet, there is no sign that things will be better once we have contained the virus and we can all feel free to mingle with each other again. Many people lost their jobs during this year, and many of those jobs will not come back. They will be replaced by even newer technologies, or it will be seen that they are no longer necessary at all. Artificial Intelligence, robots, self-driving cars, touch-screen restaurant ordering, bots that can write newspaper accounts of ballgames, bots that can read and write x-ray reports, are all making lives easier, and more cost-effective, but they are also eliminating how many people earn the money to pay their bills.
What we are experiencing is that technology cannot solve many of the problems of the 21st Century. Most of these developments have been created by groups of people working in some small or some very large corporations. These people are not bad or malicious, but their goals are not necessarily to make the world more just and free. Most likely, their goals are to make a profit for their company. Alexa and Seri are enchanting personal assistants, but the real purpose is to learn more about you than you learn from them, and to use that knowledge to sell you stuff you didn’t know you needed.
All of these “advancements” are coming at a time when large numbers of people are struggling to pay the rent. Many do not have access, or cannot afford the new, life-saving, medicines.
There are so many unsolved problems and inequities in the world that could be solved using these new technologies. Starvations could be eliminated, diseases could be wiped out, sustainable energy could lead to a cleaner, less destructive environment, wars are already unnecessary.
But, at this time, there is no leadership to convince people that these goals can, and should be accomplished. There is not even a place where that kind of leadership could come from. Even now, as the new Biden Administration fights for the “soul of America,” there is no cabinet minister for moral and ethical review of decisions. The only committee in Congress that worries about ethics is the one that censures people for taking bribes or harassing women.
We are seeing that most people feel that there are too many changes going on in the world right now. Many people are left feeling confused and anxious. We have all had to adjust to so many changes in less than twenty years. Here is a list of a few of them:
— same-sex marriages — with kids,
— women being bosses,
— Black people, all over the world, are demanding equality in every aspect of life, and now really expect to get it.
— getting instant communications that may or may not be true,
— having our every move tracked by the phone in our pocket,
— constantly being told that if you like this, you will like that,
— the possibility that our babies genes can be adjusted to avoid diseases,
— babies being created in laboratories,
— the bus has no driver
— food made in factories using modified genes
— private companies headed to Mars,
— investments being run by algorithms,
— finding a mate by swiping on your phone,
— having the dance moves of a fourteen-year-old become the most-watched thirty-seconds in the world over a three day period, and then vanish, never to be seen again.
I’m sure you all can think of many others.
Is this what we want? Who decided that all of these things are good for us? Do we have a choice? Is it up to the people who can afford these things to decide what direction the world takes?
There has to be a method for a functioning society to become informed about, discuss, and come to some kind of consensus on a way forward. There have to be people who study these issues and can explain the choices that people can make, both individually, and as a society. We need to try to anticipate the consequences of those choices.
Learning these things has recently been included in the education of some scientists, tech workers, engineers, and mathematicians. But we still had Gamergate, we still had airplanes crash on take-off, we still have people in America being killed by the police who are supposed to protect them, we still have huge, raging wildfires, rising seas, and temperatures. We still had the entire, corrupt Trump administration.
We are learning the hard way that we can’t create a livable future with just a STEM education. We need ethicists and philosophers. We need people who can teach moral development and critical thinking. And we need a methodology for including everyone in these discussions.
Given our experience with COVID, we needed to start a year ago. I would recommend that we all start talking to our families, our friends, our communities, and our elected representatives, about how we are going to set priorities, and how those priorities are going to be accomplished. If we don’t figure out a way to do this we will end up with constant squabbles and competitions that will destroy things for everybody. We’ve already done that for a few thousand years. Unless we make some major adjustments, many of our descendants will be living very difficult lives, if they are here at all.
We are living in a new world now. One that we are actively creating, and not just responding to. We still have a chance to do it right.