(An open letter to a young graduate)
Dear friend, like many graduates of your age, you wonder about the most relevant specialization of today. You may consider that binary code is obsolete and irrelevant to the contemporary environment of high-level programming languages. This is only part of truth, actually. This is because you are not Julian Assange, whose survival and freedom depends directly on his ability to create encrypted messages using binary code.
No doubt, he knows several programming languages (he is a professional hacker, after all). However, this letter is not about binary code, Assange, and the relevance of programming languages that has been already discussed in our previous articles.
This is about education along with the problem of tunnel vision common to many of your mates. Let’s ponder together the difference between learning something and been educated. Let’s consider how narrow horizons of personal mindset resulting from the highly specialized training can influence your competitiveness on the labor market. Let’s distinguish the knowledge and viewpoint in order not to be discouraged by the ideological postulates and mainstream biases leading oftentimes to civilization threats.
A natural-born… learner
Suppose you understand that in contrast to reflexes, no any skills are inherent in the human nature. So, the popular argument that somebody has “technically inept” mindset being a natural-born humanitarian is groundless. Everything people do requires learning and training.
Both literature and math are to be learned from scratch. Both journalism and programming appear from education. Some intrinsic personal inclinations and predispositions basing on a genotype matter with regard to rather physical and psychical abilities than to the desired professional skills.
Watching a playing infant, no self-respecting pediatrician could predict the baby’s career choice. Thus, when adult jobseekers complain that technical jobs do not suit their nature they demonstrate either plain ignorance or reluctance to adapt to the current employment situation.
From holistic to fragmentized
Another thing is that in the past one particular proficiency was usually enough to provide almost everybody with a lifelong livelihood. In ancient times, shoemakers, tailors, or forgers found family dynasties when craft secrets were passed from father to son. Despite the size of families and guilds, those were cohorts of quite universal masters enough interchangeable within the entire scope of their accomplishments.
The first industrial revolution invented mass production that in turn established the division of work. The holistic process of handicrafts was fragmentized into many separate stages. That fragmentation has led to both higher labor efficiency and larger employment. The subsequent technical progress kept creating new professions narrowing specializations at the same time. However, in that period the higher education was not crucial for the biggest part of employees yet.
What times dictated
As you remember, the division of labor reached its height when Henry Ford implemented the notorious conveyor-type assembly line. By that time, the technological, scientific, and political aspects of the Western civilization merged establishing the liberal society in which an individuum as a point of reference corresponded to the functional fragmentation best.
However, the idea of the endless technical progress leading to the sustained economic growth occupied not only liberal democracies, but also the terrains of the communist and fascist regimes.
The unprecedented scientific and technological leap of the XX century brought the global humanity to a logical conclusion that the wealth of society depends directly on the educational status of the population. Please pay your special attention, my friend, on the fact that the very technological development instead of the free market (which was merely absent beyond the capitalist paradigm) pushed the state governments supporting educational institutions in order to flood the industries with highly qualified personnel.
Living in the XXI century, you may notice that the situation with the labor market is changing. Of course, the highly specialized division of the so-called human capital keeps remaining. However, a new aspect of the civilization development starts dominating over the traditional model of employment.
This aspect reflects a certain imbalance between the efficiency and feasibility of production and the wages of the average employees. The imbalance results from the never-seen-before automatization and robotization of industries caused by the overall digitization and the information technologies leap. The fact is IT sphere in general and the software development in particular has significantly outpaced the other industries.
The very phenomenon of computer evolved from the cumbersome punchcard-driven machines to the pocket size AI-driven gadgets over the past 50 years. Any other industry has not been transformed so radically. For comparison, just look at the car industry. In spite of the latest achievements with electric motors and driverless solutions, cars remain too similar to the ones of mid-1960s; almost the same four-wheel metal carts with internal combustion engines in most cases.
The same concerns the other different heavy and light industries. We are still burning fossils to generate electric energy. The space exploration is tap-tapping around without any significant progress after Apollo missions (please, leave alone Elon Musk once his Space X rockets having obvious pilot nature serve to rather fundraising – investment bubbles are still popular).
Nonetheless, the computerization influenced the mere mode of production in order to reduce human attendance in manufacturing. You probably know how sinister the upcoming unemployment forecasts are. Robots will shift about 50% of current jobs within a decade. Blue collars, white collars – no matter… Don’t you think the situation is slightly oversimplified?
Things are not all so easy
In terms of profit, the final objective of automation is clear (“do more with less” is a modern business mantra!). But how about the process? As an aspiring engineer, you should understand that any robotization is far from a miracle. It could not happen effortlessly just after a big boss decided to fire almost the whole staff replacing it with robots. In reality, it requires not only an appropriate hardware/software complex but also the highly educated specialized staff able to provide a business with innovations sufficient for making the manufacturing many times more effective than the previous human labor does. And this is where the actual problem lies.
Accessibility vs availability
In this rapidly changing digital world, it is not enough to be a super-specialized well-trained worker anymore. Almost any particular qualification itself cannot guarantee your employment. Look around, my friend; everyone is striving to get to the top of employment chain. Your generation clearly realizes the way to success via the appropriate modern education. Despite the public education is going through some tough times now, the niche is filled with proliferating commercial educational organizations and startups. The information technologies provide employees with cheap and oftentimes free success to a huge massif of knowledge via the Internet.
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offer you almost everything from the notorious Ivy League (Harvard, Yale) curriculum. In addition to incomparably lower price, you can learn what you need with your own pace. For example, you can take online machine learning class through CourseEra run by one of the world’s leading experts in artificial intelligence professor at Stanford University and chief scientist of Baidu Andrew Ng. And this is for free now. Indeed, we are living in the Golden Age of training.
Learn, unlearn, and relearn!
It seems the question is to figure out which one from thousands of online courses is worth your time and mental efforts. The task is to trace the newest trend leading to a decent employment. The mere art is to anticipate what qualification will be in a demand soon distinguishing you from the rest candidates.
In fact, none of abovementioned in isolation can result in a sustainable personal success. Sorry, but the current technological paradigm requires a conceptually different approach. Instead of focusing on a certain particular proficiency, you should broaden your horizons. The accelerating changes of different business models can spring a surprise on you at any moment. You know, everything old is new again. What if the unfairly neglected Assembly becomes the most promising programming language for reprogramming of microcontrollers in the light of upcoming total automation?
Hence, my friend, your ability to forget is to become as important as your ability to learn. Left behind everything irrelevant to the moment, unlearn non-demanded subjects, set the stage for something unusual. We have entered the Knowledge Economy where the very intellectual flexibility really matters. This is exactly what can make you invulnerable to anachronistic viewpoints and ideological clichés.
Don’t be scared of the impossibility to embrace everything you consider worthwhile. The current order of things clearly hints at some new social solutions (aka Universal Basic Income) capable of providing every interested person with financial opportunities for continuing education. Besides, every farsighted employer will always support your commitment to expanding your qualification with extra skills (Indeema, for instance, always incentivizes such motivation of staff).
This may sound curious, but your modus operandi should tend to the widely educated individuals of the Renaissance. And in that regard, the great statement about modern education by Alvin Toffler is worth citing: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”