Value Added versus Liability Sponge

Someone who always gets me thinking is danah boyd.  Her post “Toward Accountability: Data, Fairness, Algorithms, Consequences” is the latest to prod my brain!

liability spongeHer post raises the issue of how data collection and data manipulation are not neutral activities…that the decision to collect or not collect and the thought process behind the analysis of data have value implications.  An example she used was around open data and how the transparency of data about segregation in NY schools led many to self-segregate, leading to more segregation, not less.  In another example, she noted how Google’s search algorithms picked up racist biases by learning from the inherently biased search practices of people in this country.

danah noted toward the end of her post:

“But placing blame is not actually the same as accountability. Researcher Madeleine Elish was investigating the history of autopilot in aviation when she uncovered intense debates about the role of the human pilot in autonomous systems. Not unlike what we hear today, there was tremendous pressure to keep pilots in the cockpit “in case of emergency.” The idea was that, even as planes shifted from being primarily operated by pilots to primarily operated by computers, it was essential that pilots could step in last minute if something went wrong with the computer systems.

Although this was seen as a nod to human skill, what Madeleine saw unfold over time looked quite different. Pilots shifted from being skilled operators to being liability sponges. They were blamed when things went wrong and they failed to step in appropriately. Because they rarely flew, pilots’ skills atrophied on the job, undermining their capabilities at a time when they were increasingly being held accountable. Because of this, Madeleine and a group of colleagues realized that the contexts in which humans are kept in the loop of autonomous systems can be described as “moral crumple zones,” sites of liability in which the human is squashed when the sociotechnical systems go wrong.”

These two paragraphs seem to provide some context to the chapter I am currently reading in Tom Friedman’s new book, Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.  In “Turning AI into IA”, Friedman suggested that a part of the solution to dealing with the triple accelerations of technological change, global market change, and environmental change, lies in leveraging artificial intelligence into intelligent assistance, intelligent assistants, and intelligent algorithms.  Friedman noted that in this age of accelerations, we need to rethink three key social contracts – those between workers and employees, students and educational institutions, and citizens and governments.

I totally agree that the status quo is not the answer, whether we are talking corporate structures, higher education, or government.  I worry though the extent to which some would push technology as an answer to higher education.

I firmly believe that integrating digital technology into teaching and learning makes sense…if one starts with the learning outcomes first and chooses the technology for the right reasons.  TPACK still resonates with me!  Smart technology could easily take the place of repetitive practice work, freeing faculty to focus on the underlying critical thinking skills that students must develop in order to succeed in tomorrow’s world.  My worry would be faculty that see the opportunity to place their courses on autopilot while they pursue their research interests.  Like the pilots above, teaching skills could atrophy…setting faculty up as liability sponges if students fail.

Friedman made an interesting observation – that when ATM’s became common in banks, there was an assumption that they would replace bank tellers.  Instead, by reducing the cost of operation, ATM’s made it possible to open many more branches…and the number of tellers increased.  They no longer handled as much cash, but they became instead points of contact with customers.

If one visualizes the higher ed equivalent of an ATM, one might see a future for higher education that involves lower cost, more locations, and more faculty….but faculty “teaching” in new ways.  Now is the time to have those conversations about the future of higher ed, the future of faculty, and the future of learning.  We need to be proactive before we find ourselves in a moral crumple zone of our own making.

{Graphic: Mishra & Koehler}

Got My Attention

Over the weekend, I continued reading Tom Friedman’s new book, Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.  I have to admit that the second section on accelerations – technologies, globalizations, and ecologies – scared the crap out of me!

In a methodical manner, Friedman laid out his case that we as a planet have reached a tipping point.  Moore’s law has reached the point where connectivity worldwide is basically fast, free, easy for you and ubiquitous and handling complexity has at the same time become fast, free, easy for you and invisible due to the cloud.

In his 2005 book The World is Flat, Friedman was widely quoted for stating:

.

In this book, he discusses a global cloud based company that originated in the eastern part of Turkey – not China or India.  In the 12 years since The World is Flat was published, we have gone from competition residing in big countries to competition residing anywhere.  The market economy has shifted from one based on products to one based on flows, which harkens back to the Goodwin quote from a couple of posts back:

“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles.  Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content.  Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has not inventory.  And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.  Something interesting is happening.”

Probably most unsettling is what he called the black elephants – a cross between black swans (low probability events with major implications) and elephants in the room (problems visible that no one wants to acknowledge).   Friedman then went on to discuss in detail nine such black elephants:

  • Climate change (we have already tipped beyond the recommended 350ppm for CO2 in the atmosphere – so we are getting hotter)
  • Biodiversity (the annual loss of species)
  • Deforestation (down to around 62%, where 75% is the level needed to maintain healthy atmosphere)
  • Biogeochemical flows (the addition of chemicals to the water system)
  • Ocean acidification (growing but still within safe limits)
  • Freshwater use (growing but still within safe limits)
  • Atmospheric aerosol loading
  • Introduction of novel new entities (nuclear, plastics)
  • Atmospheric ozone layer (the only limit we as a planet addressed and have moved back from the brink)

Compounding all of these is the continuing growth in human population.  Looking at humanity as a whole, we have increased life expectancy and dropped mortality rates, but not decreased birth rates.  When one looks at all of the black elephants noted above, and then adds the compounding element of adding even more humans to the mix, it paints a dire picture!

So Friedman got my attention…now I need to read the next section to see just where the “optimist” in his title comes in!

Balancing Optimism with Pragmatism

Audrey Watters this week posted a talk she gave at Coventry University earlier this year entitled “The Top Ed-Tech Trends (Aren’t ‘Tech’).”  Good talk by someone I like to follow in my feeds…primarily because she is the contrary voice I sometimes need to hear.  Now I am trying to balance the optimism of Friedman (and me) with the pragmatism of Audrey.

Since 2010, Audrey has published a series of articles covering the trends of the past year in educational technology – a huge undertaking!  She summarized her flow of trends in her talk.

trends2010-2011

trends2012-2013

trends2014-2015

trends2016

Audrey offers her yearly well-researched articles as a counter to the short bulletted list of “must have new cool” technologies that seem to roll out every December and January.  As her list illustrates, her trends are more ideological than technological…which in some ways aligns with Tom Friedman’s mega-trends of simultaneous accelerations of technological change, market change, and climate change.  In both cases, as Audrey noted so well:

“They’re not “trends,” really.  They’re themes. They’re categories. They’re narratives.”

…and as she noted, they are US-centric and even California-centric.  She discussed the narrative flowing out of Silicon Valley…the “dream factory” of California.  This narrative supports an optimism for science as the solution for all the world’s problems.  The focus on skills, personalization, learning to code, disruption … all flow from the California Ideology as described by Watters.  Audrey noted that she chose “the platforming of education” in 2012…and wondered if 2016 saw the failure to platform emerge as a theme.  An interesting observation, as I recall the 2012 optimism associated with A Domain of One’s Own and personalized platforms as the vehicle to lifelong learning.

In many ways, Friedman shared this optimism when he noted that we had entered a world in which”…connectivity was fast, free, easy for you and ubiquitous and handling complexity became fast, free, easy for you and invisible.”  Any problem could now be solved through the combination of fast, free connectivity and fast, free crunching of data in the cloud.  And that is probably true for technological problems.  Within the agriculture economy, the decline in immigrant field workers will probably be solved with automated field workers.  Friedman noted that we have reached an age where you only have to dream about a solution and you can achieve it.  You can build the platform to make it happen.  But Audrey closed her talk by noting that platforms are not substitutes for communities.

Both Friedman in Thank You For Being Late and Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable make an optimistic case that as technology displaces workers, it also creates new jobs requiring new skills. But Friedman also noted that when the Industrial Age displaced the Agricultural Age, it took about a generation for old ways to die off and new ways to surface.  While the rate of change has accelerated since 2007, will our rate of adaptation – both as individuals and as educational systems – match that change rate?  Audrey quoted Neil Selwyn, who identified three contemporary ideologies intertwined with the technological ones – libertarianism, neoliberalism, adnd the ideology of the new economy…to which she added a fourth – technological solutionism.  These four align with concepts of venture capitalism, the gig economy, the shared economy, the attention economy…all happening fast, free, easy for you, and accelerating.

To riff off of the video below, have we become so enamored with personalization that we have lost sight of the person?  One of my students shared this video by Prince Ea with the class…and it is worth a listen.

It is another way of saying…balance optimism with pragmatism…

{Graphics: Watters}

The Pause Button

The Pause Button…

If you have used technology as long as I have, you really do not think about the symbology associated with certain actions.  We all have grown accustomed to the two vertical bars that indicate PAUSE:

I have started reading Tom Friedman’s new book Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.  In many ways, Friedman helped solidify my thinking about the digital world in his previous book The World is Flat.  I considered that 2005 book then (and still do) to be paradigm shifting.  Friedman’s latest book seems on target and just as insightful.

A premise that he lays out in the first chapter (and will expand as the book unfolds) is that the three largest forces on Earth – technology, globalization, and climate change – are all accelerating at once…and this state of constant acceleration is difficult for our brains – instruments that John Medina in Brain Rules would suggest are geared for linear thought – to wrap around and make sense.  Friedman would suggest one way to deal with this constant acceleration would be to hit the pause button.

For 20 years, I smoked a pipe.  If someone asked me a difficult question, my reaction would be to take my pipe out and go through the ritual of cleaning it out, filling it with fresh tobacco, and lighting it.  I quit smoking in 1988 and would not suggest anyone start … but I miss that reflective time I took filling my pipe before answering the question.

Friedman takes his title from the response he gives people who show up late for an interview.  Rather than being mad, he is delighted to have had some “found time” to reflect … and so he says “Thank You For Being Late.”

One chapter down and many to go … but I am feeling an excitement I have not felt in awhile (thought Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable was almost as exhilarating!).

So I paused today to explore where this icon came from.  According to Wikipedia, the main symbols for digital electronics date back to the 1960s, with the Pause symbol having reportedly been invented at Ampex for use on reel-to-reel audio recorder controls (and I had a reel-to-reel tape player when I was at the Academy), due to the difficulty of translating the word “pause” into some languages used in foreign markets. The Pause symbol was designed as a variation on the existing square Stop symbol and was intended to evoke the concept of an interruption or “stutter stop”.

Who knew?

This balance between constant acceleration and pausing was in my mind as I continued exploring the 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report, which looked at the challenges ahead for businesses and HR professionals. I have been looking at it from a faculty development perspective.  The report is based on analysis of a survey of more than 10,400 business and HR leaders globally, and noted ten trends.  I discussed the first three trends last week, and looked at the fourth trend yesterday.

The fifth trend involved performance management.  The report noted that organizations have radically changed the way they measure, evaluate, and recognize employees.  It noted that much of what employees do today involves teams …and I would add digital teams, and so annual evaluation processes focused on individuals seem outdated.  The report noted the employees:

  • Want more regular feedback
  • Expect continuous learning
  • Expect decisions on promotions and raises to be based on data

The report suggested that rather than talk about people once a year, organizations should talk with people routinely…and work to strengthen aspects of team productivity, such as trust, inclusion, and clarity of roles.

I had lunch today with a former student who now works with businesses…and the word “trust” came up in our conversation.  Another conversation I had today with a colleague revolved around the use of term faculty rather than tenure-track faculty.  Academia is going through these same accelerations of change, and the old rules need changing.  Of course, that may be difficult, as the ones now in charge came up through the old rules.

Definitely issues to pause and reflect on…

{Graphics: Deloitte Press, SmokingPipes.Com}