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Is the Digital Revolution Turning Education Into a Ponzi Scheme?

Technologists and venture capitalists ignore the consequences of replacing workers with machines at laborers’ peril.

Technologists and venture capitalists ignore the consequences of replacing workers with machines at laborers' peril. (Photo: Blake Peterson; Edited: LW / TO)

Is the digital revolution turning education into a Ponzi scheme? As Ponzi schemes are based on multiple deceptions, the answer is “yes!” Since the beginning of automation, there have been gains in paid work opportunities (along with immense suffering) and losses in different forms of craft knowledge and community patterns of mutual support. The digital revolution we are now undergoing involves a radical change from this centuries-old tradition.

According to computer futurists such as Ray Kurzweil (author of The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence and The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology) and his singularity-oriented colleagues, we are entering the post-biological phase of evolution. One of the implications of this transition is that superintelligent machines are to replace human intelligence, as well as displace humans in the workplace. That this is already happening can be seen in the widespread use of robots, algorithms and the increasing percentage of the workforce that relies upon apps to secure temporary work contracts.

All levels of education have now been turned into a giant Ponzi scheme driven by cowboy capitalists who ignore the consequences of continuing to replace workers with machines.

According to labor economists Lawrence F. Katz of Harvard and Alan B. Krueger of Princeton, growth over the last decade was in the contingency (gig) workforce and not in conventional jobs. The thinking of the highly intelligent, motivated and narrowly educated leaders in the fields of computer science and technology is influenced by a combination of Darwinian and libertarian assumptions, which leads them to ignore the need to have a deep understanding of the cultures into which their technologies are introduced. Their merging of the Western myth of technologically based progress with Darwinism leads to collaborating with corporate culture in developing technologies that replace workers with machines. (For evidence of this, see Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control, Gregory Stock’s Metaman, Hans Moravec’s Mind Children, George Dyson’s Darwin Among the Machines and Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind.)

Corporations, in turn, benefit economically from this ideological fog of myth by being able to draw from this growing pool of temporary contract workers created by digital technologies designed to replace humans, not only in highly routinized work settings, but also in middle-class professions such as accounting, banking, law, medicine, journalism, education and so forth.

At the same time, computer scientists and technologists are spending billions on creating superintelligent computers that are intended to replicate (and thus replace) the full range of intelligence exhibited by humans, which they misunderstand by thinking that there is a universal form of human, rather than cultural, intelligence.

How “Common Core” Supports the Ponzi Scheme

The prospect of graduating only to find that the digital revolution now promotes machine-driven unemployment as the latest expression of progress will focus attention in the same way that Dostoevsky described the person facing a firing squad. This singular focus on work in the digital age led corporate heads such as Bill Gates and ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson to lead the charge to get the nation’s public schools to adopt the Common Core curriculum that is supposed to create the highly intelligent workforce required in the 21st century. The Gates Foundation provided financial support to groups promoting the reform effort, while Tillerson was head of the Business Roundtable’s advocacy of the Common Core curriculum. If anyone had bothered to consider the rate at which the digital revolution is eliminating jobs, they may have recognized that the false promises justifying the adoption of the Common Core curriculum are also a chief characteristic of a giant Ponzi scheme.

The enthusiasm with which university professors embraced the steady stream of digital technologies as advancing their personal research made them vulnerable to being complicit in allowing their colleagues in the computer science and related departments to go unchallenged in their drive to create digital technologies that would slow the flow of students that their own jobs depended upon. Before the introduction of online courses and total data collection systems (including the ability to predict the future earning power of different fields of study), the self-deception within universities was mostly limited to awarding university degrees to student athletes who were channeled into academically bogus courses.

Today’s neo-social Darwinism relieves everyone of responsibility for the unanticipated consequences of the digital revolution.

There was enough evidence, backed by the taken-for-granted ideology that a university degree would lead to surpassing one’s parents in social benefits and lifetime income. Upwardly mobile students were eagerly accepted into graduate programs in numbers that protected the jobs of their professors. In the past, there was evidence that students with newly minted doctorates would find employment that would make it possible to combine the life of the mind with earning a good and secure living. The other deception during these pre-digital revolution years was in granting degrees to students who were not challenged to think about the cultural transforming nature of different technologies, and the ideological, cultural and linguistic roots of the ecological crisis. This silence continues to be reinforced by the increasing reliance upon computer-mediated learning.

All levels of education have now been turned into a giant Ponzi scheme driven by the ideology of the narrowly educated cadre of computer scientists, technologists and cowboy capitalists who continue to ignore both the short- and long-term consequences of continuing to replace workers with machines. If student enrollments decline, faculty members are vulnerable to being fired, which is what recently happened at the University of Oregon, where over 70 faculty members in the humanities and social sciences were terminated.

Law schools around the United States are facing similar declines in enrollments due to computer systems taking over the more routine aspects of the legal profession. Journalism schools face similar declines in enrollment. As potential graduates in the social sciences and humanities realize that an increasing number of their instructors are part of a highly overworked and underpaid contingency workforce, they are likely to drop out or shift into the field of computer science and technology, dedicated to creating more machines that will replace the need for human workers. The prospect of accumulating a huge debt in obtaining a degree that may only lead to becoming part of the contingency workforce, and the possibility of a shift in governmental policy that will provide a universal living wage for everyone, variously estimated at around $1,000 per month, as jobs become increasingly scarce, are not what previous generations associated with the benefits of an education.

How fast can a student’s debt be reduced on a government subsidy of $12,000 or so a year? And what is the possibility of another recession, especially now that contract workers relieve corporations from the burden of health care, retirement and job security benefits for their employees? The growing gig economy has not resolved how to pay for unemployment compensation. In effect, what is being hailed in some quarters as a revival of the entrepreneurial spirit hides that the contingent worker now faces the increasingly uncertain world without a backup system of support.

The Replacement of Workers With Computer-Driven Systems

The drive to replace workers with computer-driven machines, according to a study by two Oxford researchers, has lead to 47 percent of the 704 types of jobs in the US economy being at risk of being replaced by computer-driven systems. They estimate that the transition will occur over the next 20 or so years, which coincides with the time frame of when the impact of climate change, the acidification of the world’s oceans, and the melting of glaciers and sea ice reach irreversible levels.

As this is the same time frame that will see more humans being replaced in the workplace by computer-driven systems, it will then become increasingly obvious that public school and higher education have become part of a Ponzi scheme that serves the interests of the cadre of computer scientists, technologists and venture capitalists whose understanding of progress did not include the need to understand the different cultures into which their technologies are introduced.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, the attention of students will likely shift from spending hours looking at their computer screens to considering their future prospects as they observe the narrowing of work possibilities. They will wake up to the failure of their classroom teachers and professors to help them understand the linguistic, cultural and ideological roots of the ecological crisis. Perhaps if students had learned about civil liberties, past social justice gains and the non-monetized intergenerational traditions of the cultural commons that enable people to live more community-centered and mutually supportive lives, they might be less inclined to reject the warnings of scientists about climate change.

As the ideology that drives the digital revolution continues to promote the myth of the autonomous individual, a human-centered world and the Enlightenment-derived idea that traditions impede progress, the West will be further caught up in the social chaos that will accompany a world population facing shortages of water, protein, employment opportunities and basic security from spreading violence. The police state characteristics of the digital revolution will then become more prominent.

Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler summarize at the end of their book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, how to think about the future: “Sure, there are always going to be a few holdouts (again the Amish), but the vast majority of us are here for the ride. And, as should be clear by now, it’s going to be quite a ride.” It is important to note that a short discussion of unemployment only appears in the appendix of their book.

With the promoters of the digital revolution, such as Kevin Kelly, Gregory Stock, Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil, as well as faculty across the disciplines who now interpret the centuries-old myth of progress as being dictated by nature’s forces of natural selection, we have moved further down the road where today’s neo-social Darwinism relieves everyone of responsibility for the unanticipated consequences of the digital revolution that is replacing humans with digital machines.

The myth of social progress that was a source of hope for individuals has now been reduced to the new myth of technological determinism that serves the interests of computer scientists, technologists, venture capitalists and ideologues in the larger society. With the merging of neo-social Darwinism and technological determinism that are now central features of the digital revolution, students hoping to find meaningful long-term employment and the opportunity to pursue a career and practice a craft are simply driven by forces now out of their control.

Unfortunately, the Ponzi scheme of educating students to become successful workers in a world where digital driven machines are limiting the need for human workers has failed to introduce students to the cultural commons: that is, the community-centered and intergenerational forms of non-monetized work where the common currency is in the sharing of talents and skills that are the ecologically sustainable forms of wealth.