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The future of work and the future of education

Roy Bahat is the head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture fund backed by Bloomberg. He also works on the future of work, and – like a lot of people in Silicon Valley – is a vocal supporter of Universal Basic Income (UBI). I met up with him in San Francisco to talk about the future of work and the importance of lifelong learning. 

How worried should we be about automation and AI threatening our livelihood?

Extremely. The narrative on it is mostly wrong. The typical narrative is ‘the robots are coming and in the future your job will be eliminated and you should worry in the present’. The right way to think about it is that all of our jobs are constantly being eliminated all the time, it just happened over a longer time scale in the past, so people could basically tough it out. The classic example is the transition from an agricultural to a mercantile economy, where the received wisdom is humanity weathered it just fine. What really happened was the parents stayed on the farm and the children moved to the city. If I think about the timescale of transitions now, all of us are mastering new tools to do our work at a rate that is much more rapid. The amount of uncertainty is going up, so the right response is preparedness, vigilance and an attitude of constant learning and reinvention. People often ask me what percentage of jobs will automation eliminate and the answer is 100%, but we don’t know over what timescale.

Hopefully it will create new jobs too.

Sure. I just went to a small town in California, where there is no large export employer. The largest employer is the hospital, the second-largest is the university and so on. And I met a number of people working in ministry – they were in the practice of creating spiritual and religious venues, generally Christian, where people could come and pray and gather. That’s an area where there is limitless demand. Culture and ideas, there’s also limitless demand. So we will continue to define whatever we spend our days doing as ‘work’, and maybe the social definitions evolve. I do think there will be jobs – or ‘work’ anyway. There’s a valid question of whether that work will pay a sufficiently high wage for people to thrive and have the material needs in life. That’s why I’m involved in the guaranteed income question. There’s no rule that just because you’re working the market clearing wage will be sufficient to live on. One of the issues we’re seeing now is, in part because of automation, the market-clearing wage for many jobs is below what is required what to exist. People say ‘oh if you’re doing empathetic jobs you’ll still be OK’. That’s BS.

Why?

Because nobody knows what will be safer or less safe. There are bedtime stories we tell ourselves to feel safe, but those stories provide reassurance, not actual information. It’s very clear that people are perfectly happy to accept the care of the machine. There’s a great book called The Man Who Lied To His Laptop about how we anthropomorphize our machines.

In Japan, for example, there’s a lack of labour in elderly care so those roles are being filled by machines.

Sure. There’s a great little indie comedy called Robot and Frank, about an ageing man with dementia and the love-story with his robot caretaker. It’s part of the movie Her too – he falls in love with a robot. I always think what’s the first trigger in many of the changes in our cultural views about technology, and I can’t find an earlier trigger than science fiction. The earliest indications for many of the transitions we go through come from story-tellers. One reason is the variety of experimentation that can take place when the physical cost of it is zero. The other is we don’t appreciate how rule-bound fiction is. Reality obeys fewer rules that narrative – narrative has a structure that is quite constraining and therefore powerful for focusing the imagination on possibilities. I’m involved with a non-profit that did a contest for science fiction stories about futures that include guaranteed income. Just to start to imagine what that might like feel like in a more complete way than policy thinking which is often ‘introduce a change, imagine one effect of the change’ which makes it hard to imagine the system of unintended consequences.

Are there sci-fi writers you really rate at the moment?

I don’t think I can rate them on their predictive value, it’s unknowable, but…

Who do you like?

Well, Charlie Jane Anders is a science fiction writer who I read recently. Octavia Butler. All the science fiction traditions that emerge which are not straight white men probably will have a different imaginative substrate than what we’ve got in the past from nerdy straight white men. What I’m looking for is focused imagination and trying to discover other sources of insight. That was with a non-profit, but Bloomberg Beta is also often thinking about what ideas to introduce into the conversation about the future of work. We’ve had film directors, including the director of Robot and Frank, we’ve had the author of a sci-fi story called After On, about a machine that gains consciousness. Those conversations between practitioners building things and imaginers framing how those things may unfold is a really valuable dialogue.

What’s your working story about a future with Universal Basic Income (UBI)? How is it different to now?

In many ways. My fear scenario is that a culture outside of the West does it first, and then we’re copying an example from Chinese culture, say – it will be very different for different cultures, and I  don’t want us to over-generalize. Setting aside many difficult implementation questions, I believe there is a possibility of much less human suffering – instead of being forced to live within distant-commuting range of a service job that barely pays you enough to cover your commute, you could choose to live somewhere else. In the woods, say. My family is Israeli, and the kibbutz model of families pooling their resources feels very familiar to me, and a guaranteed income might facilitate guaranteed income communes, I don’t know. So there could be unpredictable stuff in terms of geography. There is a case to be made that many people will refuse to do work that is demeaning and low paid, which is both bad – if the economy needs those jobs done – and good, in the sense of honouring the humanity of those people. There’ll be an interesting tension there. I also think people will take more risks professionally.

And creatively?

Yeah. It’s difficult to imagine risk without creativity.

I think of artists like Geoff Dyer talking about how important their early years on the dole were for creative experimenting.

I love that, and should read more about it. I feel the difficult thing about the dole is it binds together two things – a resource which enables you to practice your creative profession, and shame. It’s hard to flourish creatively, or has been for me, when I feel shame. One of the cool things about a universal guaranteed income is it allows people to subsist while feeling proud to participate in the commons. That would be very cool, I don’t think we’ve seen that before, other than artists’ patronage. It’s sort of like patronage in everybody and a belief in inherent human potential before it’s proven, and without dependence on a single person’s favour, which is the danger of the patronage model.

There’s also the view that necessity is the mother of invention. You can have rich kids who struggle to find meaning because they don’t have to do anything.

Yes, I think that’s valid in the sense that, sure, people could sit in their mother’s basement, watch Netflix and play video games. They do that already by the way. It’s foolish to think that having something makes you stop wanting more. If anything it allows them to escape the poverty trap that prevents them from participating fully in the profit-motive-oriented society. We don’t know. That’s why I’m looking so closely at experiments – Stockton, California is doing one. There’s 20 programmes doing some kind of cash transfer, and I’m curious to see what unfolds as a result. The thing that is hardest to predict is what the received wisdom will be: what will we call this? How will we think of people who choose to live on this? We define work right now as labour in exchange for wage. That is not a decision given by the physical laws of the universe, that’s a consensus formed by propertied white men who said ‘it will be hard for us to count in gross domestic product domestic labour, if money is not exchanged it may not be valuable’. People exchange things other than money. They exchange love. For all the people who care for an elderly relative without being paid, guaranteed basic income is an opportunity to recognize that and allow people to do that and feel proud of what they do. We have in the US the beginning of relatives being paid to be nurses to their relatives through state programmes, and I think that’s a step in the right direction.

What’s the probability of UBI being introduced?

Great question…I don’t know. It’s hard for me to see an alternative to it. The best is the continued expansion of the welfare state, but we see how poor government is in general at administering programmes, and the complexity and size of government creates as many difficulties as it solves. The most interesting questions may come in countries which already have healthcare figured out. In the US, if we give someone a guaranteed income without figuring out how to pay for healthcare, have we actually helped them at all? We’ll need solutions to both those issues simultaneously, along with others like housing and education. So I’d say it feels necessary, not sufficient, and I have no idea on the timing.

What’s your working scenario if UBI doesn’t happen?

We did a year-long study with an NGO called New America to try and envision some scenarios. In all of them there were some common features – individuals need to be less reliant on corporations to provide the benefits required to sustain modern life, so more self-sufficient. All the things that I think are inevitable in the future probably already exist now – as they say in science fiction, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

I’ve been freelance since I was 25, I have a portfolio career of a few different streams, quite self-reliant but still attached to larger institutions. Is that the way things are going?

It’s an option for some people. Another model is the campaigns model – you work intensively for some time. Why is the retirement all bunched up at the end. They may work hard at one thing and then stop for a while.

Will people invest a lot in self-development? You see that a lot in the Bay Area.

Yeah. As societies get better at handling the bottom level of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy – food, clothes, housing – what remains is investment in our own minds and hearts. The particular brand of North Californian self-development is a peculiarity of a single place at a single time, I don’t know if Burning Man is a fixture of the future.

If we’re all more self-reliant, how will we find belonging?

I think finding belonging through the work-place is a relatively new phenomenon.

But think about the longer history of humanity – the tribe, or your place in a feudal system.

Sure. One of the issues is the activities you spend your days doing were very much attached to social class and place. But work can be detached from your class, your place, your gender. Workplace identity might get attenuated, but there’s lots of alternatives, everything from which sports team you’re part of, or what religion, secular or otherwise.

What do you think of secular religion?

Well, religions have historically provided a place of belonging theoretically open to everyone. But as science has gained in authority, it’s been harder for people to believe in theistic religions. There may be alternatives to it. A journalist used the phrase ‘contingent families’ – we spend longer now living with friends who are not your family, forming familial bonds with them. I do think we’ll see a multiplication of sources of identity and belonging.

How do we educate people for the future of work?

This is a topic I’m deeply interested in without claiming much expertise. Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society is interesting on this. The central argument, that modern school prepares us for institutional life, to me is borne out. Educational reformers say the skills you should teach are empathy, creativity and problem-solving. That’s valuable for top-level institutional managers. I’d offer some other contenders, like how to manage risk, how to set priorities, how to sell. Why isn’t there a secondary-school level on salespersonship. Those are vocational skills deeply involved in the tradecraft of economic self-determination.

Is that best done in big or small educational institutions?

Universities come from the legacy of teaching clergy how to be clergy, and teaching academics how to pursue knowledge. We’ve grafted onto that professional training and it feels an awkward fit. There are new models emerging, like Olin College, which was ranked by MIT the top engineering college, and they’re teaching the method of creating new things. It’s a powerfully different view of what higher education might be. And, back to unpredictability, we probably need more lifelong education. San Francisco has Free City College, which is interesting because it allows citizens to choose what to learn themselves. I don’t know how effective the education is but the intent feels spot on.

Does your fund invest in adult education?

Sure, all the time. There’s a company called MasterClass that provides online video classes with world-famous experts like Werner Herzog or Margaret Atwood. The cost of communication is so low we can access our heroes, which we’ve done in many ways through media, now we can do it focused on this use. General Assembly is an example of a company that does in-person teaching. There are many experiments right now – we’re in the Cambrian Explosion period of adult education. The cool aspect of it is that everyone is focused on the student experience. It’s worth looking at the educator perspective. We’ve assumed educators should be professional educators or academic researchers who teach on the side, most of whom don’t like it. It’s entirely possible that the right way to practice the learning of these skills is through practitioners who spend some of their time practicing and some of their time teaching. Imagine 50 mid-level managers of Intel sharing some of their insights on day-long courses.

Absolutely. That’s what the senior managers at Rowntree’s did – they invested a lot in adult education and would teach themselves every weekend.

Everything old is new again. Invention is recombination suited to its time.

I guess you’ve seen various different moods in Silicon Valley, from 90s optimism to the present shock that maybe tech disruption is making the world worse. Do you see that?

Yes, for the culture as a whole. I’m unsure how that plays out at specific company. Google just had a letter from employees asking them not to work with certain military clients. It’s a function of power. When you’re powerless, which the internet was at the beginning, it’s easy to focus on principles. Now the facts are the facts of power, it includes wonderful things like the ability to organize a democratic process, and awful things like the ability to put citizens under surveillance at a level we’ve never seen before. The management of power is the new challenge.

Does that mean that tech engineers are having to consider ethical questions for the first time?

Well, they don’t have to, because clearly they’ve done things without that. Should they? Of course. The question is how skilled people are at anticipating consequences and understanding different ethical frameworks. These are the ageless right-versus-right questions which Silicon Valley is grappling with for the first time.

Perhaps the incredible optimism that entrepreneurs need can blind them to unintended consequences?

Yes…The unreasonable nature of the most successful founders can blind them to lots of things. Or sometimes they can be painfully aware. We want these tidy stories that makes sense to us, and reality is not that tidy. I know plenty of entrepreneurs who worry deeply about the consequences of things. How that plays out is a major question for our world. That’s why when we invest in companies we give their managers the opportunity to be exposed to people and ideas from outside the tech monoculture, in the hope that their worldviews and skills will become more developed.

It was great to talk to such a thoughtful investor as Roy. I asked him at the end whether he thought I could successfully set up an adult education venture in California. He gave me some great advice. He said there are various different models of the CEO – the CEO as general, the CEO as servant and so on. He likes the CEO as scientist. ‘Make small experiments and see how they work out.’ Be prepared for surprises and respond to the results. I like that advice. 

The Quakers on how to balance inner and outer work

Last week I visited Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat centre outside Philadelphia, nestled between the gorgeous Quaker liberal arts colleges of Haverford and Swarthmore. I made a sort of mini-pilgrimage there as part of my research into the ‘mystical expats’ – Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Alan Watts, four English writers who moved to California in the 1930s and helped invent the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ demographic (which is now 25% of the US population).

Gerald Heard is the least remembered of the four, but in many ways, he was their guiding light. In the early 30s, he was a BBC science journalist, the Brian Cox of his day, who became interested in the idea of man’s social and spiritual evolution. He thought the next stage of man’s evolution would involve an exodus beyond tribal authoritarian religion – people would learn to practice and study techniques for self-transformation from a variety of religions, testing them out with empirical psychology. He called for new institutions of education – somewhere between a monastery and a college – where adults could come to study and practice these psycho-spiritual techniques, thereby sparking man’s evolution to a higher level of group consciousness.

This marriage of psychology and contemplation was very influential for Huxley and Isherwood, for the founders of Esalen (the 60s adult development college in Big Sur), and for western spirituality in general. In fact, it’s only in the last decade that contemplative science has become mainstream, and contemplative education has begun to influence university curricula. Heard’s vision is still ahead of our time.

Gerald Heard (left) and Christopher Isherwood with Swami Prabhavananda in California

During World War Two, Heard and Isherwood both spent a lot of time at Pendle Hill. Heard wrote several pamphlets for the Pendle Hill press on Quaker topics, and helped set up a Quaker journal on contemplation, called Inner Light. For a while, he thought the Quakers could be the vanguard for the next stage in western culture’s spiritual evolution. Quakers didn’t claim a monopoly on salvation – they thought all humans have an ‘inner light’ connecting them to God. They rejected ritual and priestly hierarchy; and they still practiced a rudimentary form of meditation in their silent worship. He hoped there might be a contemplative revival in the Quakers, as they absorbed insights from ancient contemplative practices and modern depth psychology.

But how would this contemplative revival fit with the Protestant focus on good works, on mission and evangelism, on social action, bearing witness to injustice, and the burning question of what to do in response to Nazi aggression? Heard and Huxley had been prominent pacifists in the UK. But in the US, with the war in full swing, both seemed to withdraw from politics and go within. Heard declared that a peaceful politics was impossible with man at his present level of evolution – humans needed to evolve to a higher stage of consciousness. Until we did the inner work, all outer work would end badly.

This is an important question for our own time. I’m part of the culture that Heard et al helped usher in – ‘spiritual but not religious’, psychologically literate, trying to do inner work while not joining any particular religion. But this path risks becoming selfish, spiritually proud, consumerist and individualist. At the same time, I’ve seen too many people who dedicate their lives to charitable or development work burning out and doing damage to themselves because they’re not taking care of their own souls. So how do we balance care of our souls with the outer work of trying to build a fairer and kinder world?

Rufus Jones

One Quaker who thought a lot on this question was Rufus Jones, who Isherwood ironically dubbed ‘the Pope of Quakerism’. Jones taught philosophy at Haverford College and often visited nearby Pendle Hill. He was a great friend of an ancestor of mine, Yorkshire Quaker John Wilhelm Rowntree. The two met in the 30s and immediately felt a spiritual affinity.

Both of them were mystically-inclined – JW Rowntree had a spiritual experience in his 30s, after being told by a doctor that he was rapidly going blind. He left the clinic, walked out into the streets of York, and suddenly felt filled with the inner light of God’s love. Jones, meanwhile, travelled across the Atlantic to visit JW Rowntree, and on the journey he woke up in his cabin and felt a sense of anguish. That was succeeded by a deep sense of peace, love and divine support. On arriving in England, he discovered his beloved son had died that night.

Jones and Rowntree felt a shared sense of mission. They wanted to reframe Quakerism as a liberal, mystical religion, an empirical spirituality flexible enough to respond to scientific and historical criticism, which recognized the value of spiritual experiences in other religious traditions. But they also wanted to show, through historical research, that this mystical Qnuaker religion was not some flaky modern innovation, but a re-connection to a deep, central tradition in Christianity.

So they embarked on a project to re-position the Quakers within this mystical tradition, thereby uniting the warring liberal and traditionalist factions of the Quakers and re-animating the movement for the sceptical and scientific 20th century. Alas, JW Rowntree died aged 37, while visiting Jones in Philadelphia. I discovered on this trip that he’s buried next to Jones in the Quaker cemetery in Haverford, a few miles from Pendle Hill. I went there and found a corner of a foreign field that is forever Yorkshire.

Jones continued the project alone, and wrote Studies in Mystical Religion and many other books and essays on mysticism. He helped to reframe the idea of mysticism for American readers, who still had the traditional Protestant suspicions of the word: mysticism was considered introvert, solitary, morbid, sectarian, and completely opposite to the American cheery, practical, civic ethos.

Jones rebranded mysticism by insisting it meant simply ‘direct first-hand fellowship with God, and the deepened life-results that emerge’. The true mystic feels a ‘marked increase in joy’ and an increase in productivity and effectiveness too: ‘Under the creative impact of their experience, they have become hundred-horse-power persons, with a unique striking force against gigantic forms of evil and with a remarkable quality of leadership’. Very American eh? The mystic as super-powered manager.

Jones is a pretty biased historian of mysticism. He rejects almost all medieval monasticism – except for the Franciscans – and prefers obscure Protestant dissenter movements like the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and the Seekers (it’s thanks to Jones’ fascination with this 17th-century group that we got the modern term ‘seeker’ for restless spiritual searchers). He also barely discusses eastern mysticism and its attempt to overcome the illusion of this world. The true mystic, for Jones, doesn’t deny the world – they affirm it and work vigorously to improve it.

The Quakers have, of course, been incredibly effective at reforming the world. Although a tiny denomination with rarely more than a hundred thousand members, Quakers were at  the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery; they led humane reforms in asylums and prisons; they did important work in supporting the minimum wage and the introduction of the welfare state (particularly thanks to JW Rowntree’s brother, Seebohm); they have a central role in the history of adult education and adult literacy; and they’ve also played a key role in championing pacifism and non-violent resistance.

Jones found time, while teaching philosophy at Haverford College and writing histories of mysticism, to help set up the American Society of Friends Committee (ASFC), which re-settled thousands of Jewish refugees during the war – Christopher Isherwood volunteered for them and lived at Haverford for a year or so. The ASFC also helped feed a million German children after the war. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

I personally find Quaker contemplation a bit limited. To me, it’s too non-hierarchical, too non-structured. There is no sense of the structured journey through the psyche that one finds in Buddhism or medieval mysticism, nor any sense that we need guides and rituals on that journey. It’s like an orchestra where no one admits that some people play better than others, and sometimes you need teachers, a conductor and a score.

I’ve often criticized the tendency towards guru-worship in Buddhism and Hinduism. But perhaps the Quakers go too far the other way. People need help and guidance in tapping the deep well of consciousness within them. I’m not surprised that the Quaker renaissance that Heard called for didn’t happen, and that instead millions of westerners turned to Eastern practices like Vipassana, Zen, yoga, Daoism and Vajrayana Buddhism. We want to be taught by contemplative experts.

Nonetheless, the Quakers – and Rufus Jones – have an important message for us. What’s the point of all this inner work if it doesn’t make us kinder and less egocentric, if it doesn’t turn us outwards towards our fellow beings, including particularly those who are hungry, homeless, rejected, uneducated, locked up and abused? How can we combine eastern contemplative practices with Christianity’s emphasis on not accepting the world as it is, but rather trying to improve it? How do we avoid spiritual pride and the idolatry of priest-worship?

The Quakers also show us the importance of socializing your spirituality, connecting it to networks of friends and groups. It’s when our spirituality is knitted together with others into a quilt of community that we become much more effective at working to help others. As a chronic individualist, I need to remember this.