7 Ways To Relate ‘The Inevitable’ to the Future of Higher Ed

Why Kevin Kelly’s new book should be on your summer reading list.

July 11, 2016

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly

Published in June of 2016.

What would Kevin Kelly say about the future of higher ed?

I’ve been surprised that The Inevitable has not made more of a splash in our higher ed world?  This is a book that I had expected to be discussed and debated on our campuses - and so far I have not heard about much resistance of enthusiasm.  This is too bad, as Kelly has been thinking deeply for decades about how technology will shape our future. 

All of us concerned about how technology will shape the future of higher ed would do well to read and discuss The Inevitable.

Has The Inevitable made your reading wish list for the summer?

Here are 7 ways that the arguments in The Inevitable could relate to our world of higher ed:

1 - Stop Preparing Tomorrow’s Workforce for Yesterday's Jobs:

I’m not sure if this was Kelly’s intent, but The Inevitable provides a rousing defense of a liberal arts education. 

What a liberal arts education does best is to teach a set of timeless skills.  Expertise in collaboration, creativity, synthesis, and communication are the best defense for a labor market in which all routine tasks are automated.  My strong suspicion is that Kelly would argue that our higher ed industry is moving much too slowly in developing programs that prepare our graduates for a world of vastly smarter machines.

2 - The Jobless Future Is a Myth:

The thread that runs through The Inevitable is one of confidence.  Kelly is convinced that the world in 2046 will be much better than today.  In fact, Kelly argues that the next 30 years are the most exciting time imaginable to participate in the creation of an economy based on abundance.

The main source of our future pessimism, (one that exerts a powerful hold on much of the thinking on our campuses), is that rapid automation will be accompanied by structural underemployment.  Middle wage jobs will be hollowed out, replaced by a bifurcated labor market of a few highly paid creative professionals and large numbers of low-paid gig economy service workers.

Kelly is having none of this argument.  He thinks that tomorrow’s college graduates (if they graduate with the right liberal arts backgrounds) will enter careers that will be more beneficial to society, and more fulfilling, than their parents and grandparents.  Kelly foresees a world where robots take on the routinized tasks (from truck driving to accounting), leaving occupations that are based on creativity and relationship building to an ever larger number of workers.

3 - The Artificial Intelligence (AI) Revolution Represents A Transition As Large As That from Agriculture to Industry:

The Inevitable offers a very nice synthesis of the past, present, and future of AI.  Kelly is persuasive when talking about the positive productivity impacts when dumb devices (from our cars to our power grid) become smart and connected.

Has the long AI Winter that we have been living through caused us to underestimate the power of the coming AI Revolution?  Are discussions of AI limited to the CS departments on our campuses - or have we begun to think through the impact of ubiquitous AI in other disciplines and departments?

4 - Economic Systems Based on Ownership of Goods Are Collapsing:

Many of us tend to think of the Uberfication of the economy as a negative trend.  What happens when everyone is a free agent?  When the gig economy means the end of durable employment relations and career tracks?

Not surprisingly, Kelly sees the gig economy as a natural (and positive) outgrowth of a structural move from ownership to use.  His focus is on the benefits of not having to own a car - as cars sit idle 98 percent of the time.

By the 2040’s, according to Kelly, the transition from an economy based on ownership to one based on utilization will be complete.  We will go to offices that are used, but not owned, by our employers.  (How this applies to college campuses I’m not sure).   Most of what we need will be manufactured at home, using 3D printers.  The move from ownership to utilization will be accompanied by a radical drop in the cost of goods, enabling us to spend more resources on experiences.

Attention, not things, will be what is most scarce.

5 - The Proliferation of Screens Will Change Our Relationship to Information:

The people of tomorrow will be the people of the screen. Screens that are flexible and so cheap to be essentially free, and will metastasize across every device and every surface.  Personalized information - personalized to the workers and the learner and the consumer - will be as omnipresent as bandwidth is today.

What a future of screens means to the future of residential classrooms is a good question.  We are already distracted enough by our phones, watches, tablets, and laptops.  What will happen when screens are part of each piece of furniture and every article of clothing?

6 - Virtual Reality (VR) Will Reorder Every Information Industry:

I’m skeptical that VR will do much to change the higher ed experience.  My guess is that Kelly would disagree.

I guess your view on virtual reality and learning depends on how you define learning.  I see learning as a conversation.  I see learning as a relationship.

If learning is about the efficiency of information transmission, than yes, VR is going to be massively important in the future of higher education.  Kelly is convinced that VR will change entertainment, gaming, and other experiential industries.  Should we be experimenting with VR in teaching and learning more than we are?

7 - Ubiquitous Surveillance (Tracking) Is An Inescapable Reality:

The Inevitable is not a defense of the NSA (or Google).  In fact, Kelly is vocal in his support of Snowden.  What Kelly is advocating for is mutual surveillance.  That citizens understand what data is being tracked and why (by both governments and corporations), and that everyone shares in the value that is created by the tracking that the web makes inevitable.

What are the implications of Kelly’s thinking on surveillance and tracking for higher ed.  Kelly would (I think) be a fan of learning analytics.

He would argue that we have the responsibility to use the data created by our learning platforms to help our students.  He would advocate, however, that any data that students create is also owned by the students.  That every student has both the right to their own data, and the right to understand (and agree to) how the data is being used by the schools.

What do you think are the “inevitable” changes that technology will bring to the future of higher ed?

What books about technology and the future would you recommend that you think have interesting things to say about the future of higher ed?

What are you reading?


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