Where Do We Lead?

As the United States falls deeper into the willful anarchy of intentional leaderlessness demonstrated by our elected officials, I’ve noticed a trend of uncertainty about how we should lead among people of my generation.  We late-Gen-Xers/early Millennials (those of us born some time in the late 1970s-early 1980s) straddle the border between a couple different dynamics.  If you subscribe to Strauss-Howe generational theory (some have called it pseudoscience – I value it as an observation of a pattern more than a predictor of things to come) then you’ll note that these generations are “Nomad” and “Hero” archetypes, respectively.  What does this mean?

In Strauss-Howe, there are four Archetypes (Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist) born during four different Turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis).  These time periods are roughly 20 years each, and each Archetype experiences the Turnings at different times in their life.

The current Gen-X Nomads were born during an Awakening (the 60s/early 70s counterculture) and grew up during an Unraveling (80s/90s consumerism, the “me” decades).  If the pattern holds, they/we should mature into leaders during a Crisis.  Meanwhile, Millennials were born during an Unraveling (80s) and should be growing up during a Crisis.

For those of us in the borderland between these two twenty-year generations, it is confusing to try to define ourselves.  Are we Gen X?  Millennials?  What is the Crisis?  Did it start with the events of 9/11/2001?  That seems like a good choice for a beginning.  If we pick that crisis, it’s been going on for over a decade, with perhaps a decade left to work through.  If the pattern holds, we should see Gen X stepping up to take leadership and action.  I’m beginning to see signs of the Millennials stepping up to take team-oriented action in the form of social consciousness, entrepreneurialism and the new “Maker” ethic.  Meanwhile, Gen X seems to have passed cleanly through its angsty, angry searching years and emerged into successful mid-level managers placed throughout the crumbling infrastructure of the free market economy – the monolithic driver of the last three generations of Western experience.

The economy, now an artifice of high-frequency trading, ponzi schemes and prop-ups from taxpayers, is failing.  The next step in that decline seems to be the self-imposed freakshow Russian Roulette game being played out in Congress by the Randian private wealth warriors elected through a combination of corporatist influence (thanks, Citizens United) and xenophopia.  If the debt ceiling is not lifted and the shutdown continues, the global economy is in for another big downturn.

Where is the leadership that Gen X should be demonstrating?  There are no protests on the National Mall.  No one is running for office on a ticket of constitutional amendments to ban gerrymandering and undo citizens united.  We are getting fidgety.  We see things like former investment bankers quitting their jobs in their 30s to race $500 Craigslist cars in the World Rally Championship, or buying abandoned trailer parks in New Mexico and becoming Makers.  We are impatient to lead, but our furtive steps toward leadership seem disconnected with the political and economic reality of the times.  Perhaps we believe that the next steps have nothing to do with government or the global economy.  If that turns out to be true, I think the next 10 years will be an interesting and very challenging time.

Time To Start Paying People To Go To College

I’m becoming convinced that the increasing economic disparity in the United States is at least partially due to the radical transformation we are seeing in the availability of extremely efficient and disruptively cheap and powerful machines. Machine intelligence in the form of open-source rules engines can be downloaded and used to create expert systems that can be loaded with facts and programmed with rules to power extremely fast decision making that used to be the exclusive purview of domain expert “knowledge workers.” The effects of Moore’s Law are evident in the increasing pace of this change. Not more than 10 years ago, the solution seemed to be retraining of unskilled labor to do skilled jobs. Five years ago, we started to hear grumblings that the US was not producing enough “STEM” jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – funny because US colleges and universities do educate in Science, Engineering and Math, but Engineering and Technology (especially IT) are where the jobs are at, and IT tends to be overlooked in academic circles.) Even STEM jobs, though, are starting to seem to be in danger. Economies of scale that make cloud services like Amazon EC2 and Microsoft Azure attractive for business also drive on-premises IT workers out of their jobs. These jobs are not replaced by an equal number at the cloud providers, precisely because of the scale and degree of automation of their operations.

This past week, two things happened that are tied directly to this trend: The bizeratti at the World Economic Forum in Davos are apparently convinced that higher education is in the midst of radical disruptive change due to things like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Paul Krugman said the increasing economic disparity in the US is due to our jobs being replaced by machines. Many of the jobs that US universities have been creating over the past 20 years have been feeders into the academic system via graduate school. The prospects for this huge number of Ph.Ds to find tenure-track jobs and retain them in the brutally competitive academic job market are not favorable. And now we are starting to see students default on their student loans because they can’t find jobs, leading to the possibility of another taxpayer-funded bailout of loans.  Those students who do get Ph.Ds face the prospect of their potential job pool being severely undercut by the scalability of MOOCs.  Why go to a local community college when you can learn about creating software as a service, in video form, from Cal Berkeley?  A core concern here: if we start creating superstar professors who teach MOOCs, and people stop attending local, “regular” colleges and universities, how will today’s graduate students get the experience they need to be tomorrow’s superstars?  If we say they must dedicate their careers to cutting-edge research instead, how will fields that are more pedagogically focused survive?  How will these future research nerds ever learn the practical skills of teaching, so they can communicate their ideas to students?

What do the rise of MOOCs, rising and defaulting student debt, lack of good jobs for highly  educated people, increasing economic disparity, and an economic system increasingly powered by arbitrage and technological tricks like high-frequency trading and hidden risk tranche-based pyramid schemes point to?

We need something real to invest in, that thing should be human fulfillment through education and the arts, and we are losing the means to pay for it because there are no jobs to support it.  I think we are transitioning to a system where the very wealthy (businesses and individuals) need to be extremely heavily taxed, world wide (so there is no place they can hide their wealth – this implies a world government to enforce it.  Let’s get over the “new world order” paranoia right now – that ship has sailed.) in order to pay the newly “job”-less class to become educated and fulfilled in other ways.  To prevent massive social disruption, this pay should likely be focused to create “artificially” high-paying jobs that will do good, things like working in organic local agriculture, renewable energy, infrastructure repair and K-20 education.  The US education system needs to be transformed to again be highly publicly-funded, and we should probably start paying people to go to school instead of charging them huge tuitions and forcing them to accrue debt they have little hope of repaying.  We should begin a project to massively publicly fund the arts, basic science research, infrastructure rebuilding and renewable energy creation.

Let’s think of ways to fix things, and let’s stop undercutting these ideas before they can work by labeling them with outdated, ignorant, reactionary 20th century wolf-whistle terms like “socialism.”  Did I just describe a totalitarian communist world government in overly-rosy terms?  My hope is that equally disruptive technologies like social networking, anonymity networks like Tor, and alternative currencies like BitCoin can put some reins on the power of government and big companies.

Update: It appears that Robert Reich is thinking about some related topics today.

Update 2: I guess there has to be some kind of system of competitiveness or incentive in order to drive people to excellence and prevent the kind of stagnation that eventually destroyed the USSR.  How that fits into this proposed new system is not clear to me.  I suspect it’s do-able, especially if we do not eliminate the free market, but instead tax it at a reasonable rate.  The media and culture would also need to be gradually changed to make intellectualism a highly valued trait.  Superprofessor MOOC instructors with huge followings might go a long way toward that goal.  Can you imagine a world in which Larry Lessig is more famous than LeBron James?  That seems like a good thing to me.

Self Interest Doesn’t Scale

I’ve been thinking about the commonalities of a lot of patterns I’m seeing in the world lately:

  1. The “Arab Spring” and its coordination via social media
  2. The “Great Firewall of China”, China’s (failing) attempt to keep things like Twitter at bay
  3. Iran wants to create its own Internet (a contradiction in terms) to prevent stuff like Stuxnet and (more importantly) social media-based revolts from happening there
  4. Artificial borders and internecine conflicts everywhere are becoming permeable on all levels: from nation-state policy to transnational corporate hegemony all the way down to city council meetings and managerial turf wars.
  5. How long can places like the NSA keep employees from bringing cell phones into the work place?  How about when the “cell phones” are built in to our heads and we can’t really function without them?  Are we heading toward a world where there’s going to be a policy filter at the door of the NSA that shuts off or limits the capabilities of neural prostheses?
  6. The kids don’t care about privacy or policy – they use whatever works to communicate and share, the tools are getting better every day, and the tools and the kids don’t care about any of the above limits.  They definitely don’t care about your BYOD policy.

Let me say that I’m not an anarchist. I’m not even a libertarian. You could call me a social liberal and economic conservative, with some libertarian tendencies thrown in on stuff that’s about personal freedom, not infrastructure and the commons.

So what’s the unifying factor among all the items in my list?

I think it’s self interest and control. More accurately, it’s that the structures, frameworks and artifices of control, working on behalf of selfish individuals (everyone is selfish), are starting to crumble under the weight of the network effect inherent in social media. We are becoming less about the individual and more about the set of all humans.  This is just one more step in the long history of technology overcoming evolutionary forces.

Everyone sees and deplores the recent killings in Syria, and the governments of the world have no choice but to condemn them. The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case probably never would have gone to trial if it weren’t for social media-reinforced pressure.

So what happens? Of course it looks like the control structures and the individuals they serve are pushing back. I think they are going to fail as humanity becomes increasingly interconnected.  Let’s face it: if evolution can’t win, how is power going to?

What does the singularity look like? Maybe it’s a bunch of angry kids flashmobbing a tyranny they can’t take any more. What’s the path of least resistance? Tear down the walls faster.