Monday, October 17, 2011

Educating for Large-Scale Civilizations

Computers are important for running the world now because the world is getting very complicated, and computers are usually the best (and often only) way to represent complicated things. I like to look at the advertisements for large computer companies such as IBM, Oracle, and SAP in glossy magazines. They tell us that their products will help the executive make correct decisions under conditions of both uncertainty and (yet) data-overload. But we're all like that, now (or so we're told): We have a lot of data coming in (usually in the form of email or complicated financial statements), and we are expected to digest it, chew it, and spit back out some sort of "reply data" in order to further our interests. This also applies to every class you've ever taken in school or college.

Taking such a data-centric view of education is pretty unromantic, but it's what's happening now. I've become not too bad at crunching my own data, but what society demands is that our citizens get good at crunching other people's data. Therein the profit lies. It is one thing to be able to pay my own bills and do my own taxes, but when I can do it for others I become an "accounts payable bookkeeper" or "tax accountant." It is one thing for me to be able to get my client or tenant to pay up, but if I specialize in these activities I may become a "collections agent" or even "bounty hunter."

Thus the consumer can specialize in one or another area and become more efficient at it, until for example there is only one brand name on your CPU and one operating system on your computer. In a world where most goods and services are thus produced on an incredibly large scale, the most important skill for the human becomes the ability to work efficiently and effectively with large sets of data. In other words, to become a small but critical piece within an entity (usually a corporation or government) which serves millions, or even billions, of people. If you are really good at figuring out this world of monstrous scale, you may find yourself running such an entity.

Even though many people would like their sons and daughters to one day run a huge organization such as a company, a university, a hospital, or a government, there are not yet middle-school classes devoted to learning "how to run behemoth organizations." One would think it is largely a matter of motivational psychology. That is, as the head of such-and-such organization, how can I get the people one step below me to do the correct thing to advance its interests?

Let us contrast this sort of education--what I call "education to assist in running a large-scale civilization"--with the sort of education that a lot of Ivy-League type people miss out on. Let us call this "Zen and the art of troubleshooting your own engine" education. Perhaps you have hired acomputer-repair person, a car mechanic, a general contractor, a physician, or a "doctor the mind" and behaviour (a psychologist, psychiatrist, or even a social worker or clergy member). In general, these specialists are not very good unless they employ Practical Wisdom. That is, they cannot just be like robots or a simple artificial-intelligence/expert-system following straight book-learnin' rules....

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