As the pace of change increases, the very idea of a person, of his essence, of his cognitive structures changes. Forget programming – the best skill children should learn is rethinking. “The invention of the bicycle.” What will be the next 30 years for humanity? What awaits us in 2050?
Part one: change is the only constant
Humanity is facing unprecedented revolutions, all our old stories are crumbling and no new ones appear to replace them. How do we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties? A child born today will be thirty in 2050. If everything goes well, he will live to the year 2100, and maybe he will remain an active citizen in the 22nd century. What should a child learn in order to survive and flourish in the world of 2050 or the 22nd century? What skills will he need for him to get a job, understand what is happening around him and find his way in the maze of life?
Unfortunately, no one knows what the world will be like in 2050 – not to mention the 2100. We cannot answer these questions. Of course, people never knew how to accurately predict the future. But today it is more difficult to do this than ever, because as soon as technologies allow us to change the bodies, brains and minds of people, we will not be able to be sure of anything – even that previously seemed unshakable and eternal.
A thousand years ago, in 1018, there was a lot of things in the future that people did not know about, but they were confident that the basic characteristics of human society would be unchanged. If you lived in China in 1018, you would not know that by 1050 the Empire of Dream would fall, the Chinese would invade from the north, and the plague would kill millions of people. But you would know that in 1050 most people would still grow rice and yarn, rulers would rule people, men would dominate women, life expectancy would be about 40 years, and the human body would remain the same. Therefore, in 1018, poor Chinese parents taught their children how to grow risk or spin silk, and rich parents taught how to read Confucius, write beautifully or fight horseback — and girls were taught to be modest and helpful. Obviously, in 1050 these skills were still needed.
On the contrary, today we have no idea how China or the rest of the world will look like in 2050. We do not know what people will do for a living, how armies and bureaucrats will function, what gender relations will be. Some people are likely to live much longer than today, and the human body itself will undergo unprecedented changes, thanks to bio-engineering and neuro-computer interfaces. Most of what children teach today will not make sense by 2050.
There are currently too many schools doing info. In the past, this made sense, because the information was fragmented and even a slow trickle of information was carefully censored. If you lived in a small provincial town in Mexico City in 1800, it would be difficult for you to learn more about the big world. Radio, television, daily newspapers or public libraries did not exist. Even if you were educated and gained access to a private library, you could read only novels and religious literature. The Spanish Empire carefully censored all texts that were printed on its territory, and allowed very few to pass through without. It would be the same if you lived in Russia, India, Turkey or China. When modern schools appeared that taught everyone to read and write and gave basic knowledge of geography,
In contrast, in the 21st century we are drowning in huge amounts of information that even the censors are not trying to block. Instead, they are busy spreading misinformation or distracting us with irrelevant details. If you lived in a provincial Mexican town and you had a smartphone, you would have spent many lives just reading Wikipedia, watching TED performances and online courses. No government can hide information from you that it does not like. On the other hand, people are very easy to fool. People from all over the world are in one click from information on Aleppo bombings or melting glaciers in the Arctic, but there are too many controversial points to choose what to believe.
In such a world, the last thing a teacher should give to his students is more information. Its already too much. Instead, people need the ability to conceptualize information, name the difference between important and unimportant, and, above all, combine pieces of information into a coherent picture of the world.
In truth, this was the ideal of Western liberal education over the centuries, but so far many Western schools have rather poorly matched it. Teachers allowed themselves to interpret the train data instead of encouraging students to “think with their heads.” Because of the fear of authoritarianism, liberal schools were especially terrified of large narratives. They assumed that as long as we give students a lot of data and freedom, students will create their own picture of the world, and even if this generation cannot synthesize all data into a coherent and meaningful history of the world, there will be a lot of time to create a good synthesis in the future. Now we have time out. The decisions that we will make in the next few decades will change the future of life itself, and we will be able to make these decisions, based only on our present world view. If this generation cannot create a consistent picture of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random.
Part Two: The Temperature Rises
In addition to information, most schools also focus too much on providing students with a set of pre-determined skills, such as solving a differential equation, writing computer code in C ++, defining chemical elements in a test tube, or translating from Chinese. But we have no idea what the world will look like and the market for work in 2050, so we don’t know what specific skills people will need. We can force children to write in C ++ or speak Chinese and find out that by 2050, AI can program software much better than people, and the new Google Translate copes with translation better than any person.
What should we learn? Many experts in the field of pedagogy believe that schoolchildren should develop the “four K”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration (that is, learning to work together) and creativity (that is, creative approach). The most important will be the ability to cope with changes, learn new things and maintain emotional balance in unusual situations. In order to keep up with the world in 2050, you will need not only to invent new ideas and products – you will have to reinvent and rethink yourself again and again.
As the pace of change grows over time, not only the economy, but also the very meaning of “being human” changes. In 1848, the Communist Manifesto declared that “all that is solid melts in the air.” Marx and Engels, however, mostly thought about social and economic structures. By 2048, physical and cognitive structures will also melt in the air — in clouds of data bits.
In 1848, millions of people lost their jobs in agriculture and went to big cities to work in factories. But getting to the big city, they did not have to change their gender or add a sixth sense. And if they found work at some kind of textile factory, they could expect to stay in this profession for the rest of their lives.
By 2048, people may experience migration to cyberspace, with a floating gender identity and new sensitive experiences that computer implants provide. If they find work and meaning in the development of modern fashion in a three-dimensional game in virtual reality, in ten years not only this profession, but also all jobs requiring the same level of artistic creativity can simply move to AI. Therefore, at 25 you will present yourself on a dating site as “a twenty-five year old heterosexual woman who lives in London and works in a fashionable store.” At 35 years old, you will already be a “gender-undetermined person, who is passing the age definition, the neocortical activity of which for the most part takes place in the virtual world“ New Cosmos ”, and the goal of all life is creative work in the field of to which no designer dared before. ” At 45, both the definitions for a dating site and self-determination will be different. It will be enough for you to wait until the algorithm finds (or creates) a perfect pair for you. As for the creation of fashionable projects, the algorithms will surpass you so much that your dubious achievements of past years will only make people laugh. Still, in 45 years you will have many decades of radical change ahead.
Please do not take this script seriously. No one can predict the specific changes that await us. Any particular script will be in milk. If someone describes the world to you in the middle of the 21st century, and you find it absolutely fantastic, it will most likely be untrue. But if someone describes the world to you in the middle of the 21st century and it does not sound fantastic, it will surely be untrue. We do not know the details, but we only know for sure: changes are inevitable.
Such profound changes may well transform the basic structure of life, making it a short duration feature. From time immemorial, life has been divided into two complementary parts: the period of study, followed by the period of work. In the first part of your life, you accumulated information, developed skills, put together a picture of the world and created a stable personality. Even if you spend most of your day at 15, working on a family rice field, you learn how to cultivate rice, how to build relationships with greedy traders from a big city and solve problems with other villagers. In the second part of your life, you rely on accumulated knowledge and skills to navigate the world, earn a living and contribute to society. Of course, even at the age of 50, you continue to learn new things about rice, about traders and about conflicts,
By the middle of the 21st century, the acceleration of change, coupled with increased life expectancy, will make this traditional model obsolete. Life will burst at the seams and there will be less and less duration between different periods of life. “Who am I?” Will become an extremely frequent and important question.
Most likely this will be associated with tremendous stress. Changes are almost always stressful, and after a certain age, most people simply do not like to change. When you are 15 years old, your whole life changes. Your body grows, your mind develops, your relationship deepens. Everything is in motion, everything is new. You reinvent yourself. Most teenagers are scared, but at the same time exciting. New horizons open up before you, you are ready to conquer the whole world. You prefer stability. You have invested so much in your skills, your career, your personality and the picture of the world that you do not want to start all over again. The harder you work on something, the harder it is to quit and do something else. You can enjoy new experiences and minor changes, but most people in their 50 do not want to deeply change their personality.
There are neurobiological reasons for this. Although the brain of an adult is more flexible and changeable than previously thought, it is still not as malleable as the brain of a teenager. Reconnection of neurons and interweaving of synapses is a damn hard work. But in the 21st century you can hardly afford stability. If you try to cling to any stable person, job or picture of the world, you risk being left behind. Given that life expectancy will increase, you may have to spend many decades in the role of an ignorant ancient man. To remain necessary – not only economically, but also socially – you will need the ability to constantly learn and reinvent yourself, especially at such a young age – 50 years.
Since everything strange will become a new norm, your past experience, as well as the past experience of all mankind, will become less reliable guides. People, as individuals and humanity as a whole, will increasingly deal with things they have never come across before. Such as supramental machines, designer bodies, algorithms for manipulating your emotions, rapid climatic cataclysms and the need to change the profession every ten years. What to do if you get into a completely unexpected situation? How to act when you are drowned by the flow of information and there is absolutely no way to absorb and analyze it? How to live in a world in which deep uncertainty is not a bug, but a feature?
To survive and thrive in such a world will require flexibility of the mind and large reserves of emotional balance. You will have to constantly face the unknown and give up what you know well. Unfortunately, teaching children to greet the unknown and maintain their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them physics or the causes of the First World War. You cannot learn the flexibility of thinking by reading a book or listening to a lecture. Teachers themselves lack the mental flexibility that the 21st century will require, because they themselves are the product of the old education system.
The Industrial Revolution bequeathed to us the theory of the pipeline. In the center of the city there is a large concrete building, divided into many identical rooms, each with desks and chairs. On a call, you enter one of these rooms with 30 other children born in the same year as you. Every hour adults come in and start talking. They are paid for by the government. One of them tells about the shape of the Earth, the other about the past of man, the third about the human body. You can laugh at this model as much as you want, and almost anyone agrees that, regardless of a person’s past achievements, they are no longer relevant. But we have no other alternative. Especially, which could be implemented in a rural area of Mexico City.
Part Three: Hacking People
The best advice I could give to a 15-year-old who was stuck in an obsolete school somewhere in Mexico City, India or Alabama: do not rely on adults too. Most of them think normally, but do not understand the world. Previously, adults could be relied on, because they knew the world well, and the world slowly changed. But the 21st century will be different. Because of the increasing pace of change, you can never be sure what adults are trying to tell you: eternal wisdom or outdated bias.
What to rely on then? On technology? But this is an even more risky bet. Technologies can help a lot, but they also have too much power over your life, you become hostage to this agenda. Thousands of years ago, people invented agriculture, but this technology enriched the tiny elites, enslaving the majority. Many people worked day and night, carrying buckets of water and collecting corn under the scorching sun. It can happen to you.
There is nothing wrong with technology. If you know what you want from life, technology can help you with this. But if you don’t know what you want from life, the technology will most easily form your goals for you and take control of your life. Moreover, technologies are becoming better understood by people, and rather you serve them, and not you. Have you seen all these zombies roaming the streets, sticking smartphones to their faces? Do you think they control technology or technology control them?
Can you trust yourself then? As biotechnology and machine learning improve, it becomes easier to manipulate the deepest emotions and desires of people, and to follow the heart is more dangerous than ever. When Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu or the government knows which strings of your soul to pull, can you keep the difference between yourself and the result of their marketing specialists?
To succeed in such a complex task, you will need to work very hard to get to know your operating system better. Know who you are and what you want from life. This is, of course, relatively old advice: know yourself. For thousands of years, philosophers and prophets called people to know themselves. But in the 21st century this advice will become more relevant than ever, because unlike the days of Lao Tzu and Socrates, today you have serious opponents. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are trying to hack you. Not your smartphone, computer, or bank account — they want to crack your organic operating system. You have probably heard that we live in an era of computer crackers, but this is only half the truth. We live in the era of hacking people.
Algorithms are watching you. They watch where you go, what you buy, who you meet. Soon they will watch your steps, your breathing and heartbeat. They rely on big data and machine learning to get to know you better and better. And as soon as these algorithms know you better than you know yourself, they will be able to take control of you and manipulate you, and you won’t even know it. You will live in the Matrix or in the Truman Show. Your identity will be limited to the algorithms that control you.
Of course, you can be happy, giving all the powers to the algorithms and trusting them to decide something for you and for the rest of the world. If so, relax and enjoy the ride. You do not need to do anything. Algorithms take care of everything. If you want to keep control of your personal existence and future life, you need to move faster than algorithms than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. Leave all illusions behind. They are very heavy.