Author Stewart Brand is credited saying the following:
“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, adjusted for inflation, the average cost of attending college for a year has increased 346% in the last 36 years (up from $13,000 to $45,000). That’s not exactly a small sum. And again, that’s after adjusting for inflation. The real dollar numbers are much worse (up about 811%, from $6,000 to $45,000).
To put that in perspective, the United States income poverty line for a family of four is only $26,500, and according to Statista, there are approximately 19.78 million college students right now. If we decided to feed the poor instead of going to college, we could lift 133 million people out of poverty, or eliminate poverty in the US for about 3.5 years.
Scott Galloway is a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Somewhat of a genius, he’s been the founder of several multi-million dollar tech firms, as well as having served on the board of several reputable companies—including The New York Times, Urban Outfitters, and Eddie Bauer. In his book “The Four,” he said the following:
“I teach 120 kids on Tuesday nights in my Brand Strategy course. That’s $720,000, or $60,000, in tuition payments, a lot of it financed with debt. I’m good at what I do, but walking in each night, I remind myself we (NYU) are charging kids $500/minute for me and a projector.”
So on the one hand, college is clear evidence that information does indeed want to become more expensive. And on the other hand, you have the internet demonstrating that information also wants to be as inexpensive as possible—even free. It costs users nothing to search on Google, or Bing, or DuckDuckGo. It costs users nothing to ask a question and get an answer on Reddit or Quora. It costs users nothing to upload videos, post comments, or share their thoughts on YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, or Instagram. It’s even free to search through Google Scholar, a database of databases of peer reviewed scholarly articles.
The internet is how politicians campaign, companies collaborate, and families stay in touch. It’s how companies advertise and customers purchase. It’s where we research and publish, create and consume, and connect and engage.
Information on the internet is so vast and so inexpensive that if a copy of a Math 1010 syllabus were to find its way into your hands, you could learn everything in that class—in the order the class wanted you to learn it—without paying a dime. You just wouldn’t get any of the credit.
Indeed, information has never been less expensive—and at the same time more expensive—than it is now. We have these two, colleges and the internet, fighting against each other over what information should cost—as well as over who should pay for it.
And all of this in a world where we can’t seem to figure out what information is worthwhile and what information is not.
Today, I would like to discuss the economy, the internet, and the future of education. How they influence each other, how they’ll evolve, and what it means for us.
The economy and education
Perhaps you or a young student you know will have a relatively predictable education. By and large, the process of getting an education has remained effectively unchanged in the last 100 years. From about age 6 and all the way through masters programs, generally speaking, for school, you do the following:
Go to a classroom, sit at a desk or in a chair, listen to a teacher give a lecture, occasionally answer a question, receive a homework assignment, go home and do your home work. Every now and again, sprinkle in a standardized test, and you have yourself a world-class education…or maybe a really awful education. As a society, we actually can’t really tell the difference yet. But the point I’m making is that no matter where you are, what school you attend, how much you paid, or whether you’re 6, 16, or 26—odds are this is pretty much what your education looks like.
It’s also what your parents’ education looked like, and it’s what their parents’ education looked like too. But maybe, with a little bit of luck, it won’t be what your children or grandchildren’s education looks like.
I’ve heard a theory that the modern education system was developed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution economy. At the turn of the 20th century, companies like Ford needed workers for their factories. These people didn’t need to be particularly smart or creative or talented. They simply needed the ability to learn systems and perform processes given to them. “Take this thing, bolt it to that thing, send it down the line.”
And so the classroom was born. Built more on instruction than education. You sit down, read this, do this, and don’t talk. Here’s your textbook, pencil, and notebook. If you do the work, you’ll get a good grade.
It mirrors the industrial economy very well. Stand here, do this, and don’t talk. Here are your tools, protective equipment, and rules. If you do the work, you’ll get paid.
Of course, I have no way of testing if this theory is correct. Ford owned a car company, he was not the head of the department of education. Economies and education systems are symbiotic, but I’m not sure they’re always confederate. I imagine that the modern education system was most certainly influenced by the industrial economy, but I’m not sure it was created by it.
And so you have these two working in parallel. Schools providing an education that matched the economy, and companies providing an economy that matched the education. Capitalism allowed this relationship to become extraordinarily efficient. So efficient that you didn’t need to finish college or even high school to get a job at the factory. Of course, by 1938, as a nation, we decided that letting children work in a factory where glass bottles were made without any form of regulation was negligent to say the least, and the employment of virtually all children under the age of 16 was banned.
We even have this efficiency baked into the nomenclature of the education system. We have primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools. It’s as if the education system is telling students “you’re fine to drop out of school at age 11. And you know what you really don’t need? College.”
And the craziest thing is…100 years ago, that was pretty much true. If you dropped out of school at 12, you probably wouldn’t ever be rich, but you could survive. Most people, however, just graduated high school, and then got a job. And that worked.
Less than half of high school grads in 1960 ever went to college. That number is now somewhere around 70%. And that’s even with university being 3.5x more expensive. You just didn’t need to go then. You could be middle class for free. And that is seldom the case nowadays.
Of course, by now you’ve probably realized the problem with this education system: it no longer matches the economy.
Things have changed, dramatically. International commerce is now the norm. We have phones. Cars go 80mph on the road—and somehow that’s safe—and the average American can now travel by airplane. Or, perhaps the biggest change, the average American can now choose not to travel at all because of the internet.
The internet and the economy
As much as people recognize the power and influence of the internet, it’s still widely undervalued. It’s literally changed everything. There is not a facet of life that the internet hasn’t touched.
You back up your data on the cloud, save your home videos on Facebook, and over 200 million people have decided that they buy enough products from Amazon that it’s worth it to spend $100 a year on a Prime membership.
You check reviews for products, and that influences what you buy. From the car you drive to the movies you watch to the clothes you wear to the food you eat. All of it is influenced by the internet.
In 2020, when the economy practically shut down as everyone was instructed to shelter in place, we turned to the internet. People worked remotely, learned remotely, purchased products remotely.
You stream your entertainment through the internet. Movies, TV shows, sports, plays, talk shows, podcasts, celebrity personalities, news, games—it’s all done online.
You invest online using apps like Robinhood, Acorns, Etrade, or Coinbase. You check your bank account online. You probably even use a cloud based app to budget—assuming you budget—like YNAB or EveryDollar. All or money is online.
Texting, calling, facetiming, facebooking—all of your communication is done online.
Amazon, Etsy, Walmart.com, Ebay, and even Facebook Marketplace—all of your commerce is online.
The internet is everywhere and part of everything.
One hundred years ago, businesses were really simple. You have a widget. You build an assembly line, breaking down the building of that widget into small, mechanical-turk-style tasks that take a few minutes to teach to someone. You then hire hundreds of workers and mass produce your widget and sell it to retailers.
The education system prepared you to work for a company like this. A company where you would clock in, do mindless work for a set number of hours, and collect a paycheck. And jobs like these used to be plentiful and they paid well.
Now, thanks to the internet, the economy is much more complex. One where you can work for Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates, and Handy all at the same time without being on their payroll; work 60 hours a week and make less than $50k a year.
That is way different than working for Proctor and Gamble right out of high school, only working for Proctor and Gamble, and getting a gold watch when you’ve been employed there for 40 years. We are not the same as our grandparents. It’s literally encouraged by career experts to change jobs every three years.
The internet has given rise to the sharing economy, the gig economy, the information economy, and an entire industry built on “knowledge workers.”
Entire businesses exist solely on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Twitch, and even Facebook. You don’t always need physical real estate.
And if you’re an employee, you now have the ability to apply for any job, anywhere. Which is great because you have more options. But so do the companies you apply to work for. Which means that your competition is everyone, everywhere. Including people in Bangladesh who are willing to do your job for a fraction of the price.
Getting a job one hundred years ago required that you were alive and could make it to work. Now, getting hired is so complicated that people hire experts to help them appear more qualified, or to train them on how to interview for a job.
Is this exclusively because of the internet? Perhaps not, but it’s a big player in how the economy has changed. The supplier of Amazon’s warehouse robots isn’t necessarily an internet company, but you can bet the internet has changed the way they’ve done business. The internet sector added 6 million jobs to the market in 2018 alone, according to the Internet Association.
But our education system is still designed to prepare students for a world where your life exists in your town and nowhere else. Where you have one job, your only friends are neighbors, and all you know is in your local newspaper.
So, naturally, it doesn’t work. Not for what we need it to.
And this is true regardless of where you go to school. Whether you’re public schooled, private schooled, charter schooled, or homeschooled; if you plan of getting a diploma, taking the ACT, or attending college—or even if the trade school you plan on going to requires transcripts or a GED—your education system prepares you for the old economy. And it’s not sustainable.
You cannot solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. And in order to build an education system for the future, we have to understand what the economy of the future might entail.
The future of the economy
Like the current education systems of today, the modern iterations of capitalism were designed for a different, much simpler time. A time when markets were small and localized. When scale was finite and competition was limited. And when candidates for jobs were still all human.
Now, if the company you work for sells a product, there’s always a threat that a tech giant will sell the same product next year and your company will go under. Then you’re likely out of a job because the tech giant will use robots instead of you.
What this has done is effectively eliminated webmasters. What was once a collaborative effort between the design and web development teams, is now a task that can be done by a single design member and a $42/mo subscription. In a little over 20 years, we’ve gone from building websites with information about software, to creating software that builds websites all on its own.
Or consider the commercial kitchen robot “Flippy” by Miso Robotics. It can work a grill or deep fryer, cooking burgers and fries with perfect consistency. It’s OSHA safety compliant, operates over 100,000 hours without turning off, and can be used in any commercial kitchen.
The purpose of Flippy is to fill the 800,000 food industry jobs left vacant as part of the great resignation because it’s cheaper to make a robot than it is to pay employees a wage they can afford. And with over $35M in funding and the backing of investors like White Castle, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Inspire Brands (which owns Arby’s, Sonic, Dunkin’ and others, totaling over 32,000 restaurants), Flippy is well on its way to becoming mainstream.
Capitalism has done wonderful things for the lives of every living person on the planet. It’s even done wonderful things for our education system. If it’s true that the assembly line gave life to the public education system as we know it, the result has been a much more educated people (generally speaking) than what existed before Ford Motors. Virtually every American can read and write, do arithmetic, study—and we all now know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. The world is smarter and more wealthy because of capitalism.
But capitalism optimizes for efficiency. It’s not just the company that produces the best product that wins. It’s the company that produces the best product the fastest and/or the cheapest.
This insane drive for efficiency means that capitalism looks to root out anything that is slow or prone to error. Like humans.
Nothing a human does is precise. Everything varies, has a different look, feel, consistency. And because we can’t be perfectly consistent, we can’t be fast. And currently, humans are the inefficiency the economy is targeting.
Where humans are vanishing
All over the economy, humans are disappearing from the workforce. Flippy and Webflow are just two examples of humans being replaced by something more reliable, cheaper, or more efficient. There are more, of course.
Waymo and Tesla, replacing the need for rideshare drivers and taxis, bus drivers and truck drivers. Kiva Systems, now owned by Amazon, replacing warehouse workers with sorting robots. Or how about replacing judges in the legal system with open source AI software? Because that’s happening too, and I can’t remember a time I’ve ever heard the work of a judge be called “unskilled labor.” Typically, we just refer to them as “your honor.”
In 2021, fortunately, there were over a million more jobs than people looking for jobs. But what happens when that number flips? When there are more people than jobs. Because that will happen if economic trends continue.
Let’s assume for a moment that Flippy fills those 800,000 food industry jobs. And let’s also assume that the economy is 99% efficient in finding replacement jobs for those workers that Flippy replaced. That’s still 8,000 people out of work because of Flippy alone. Now do that to every job in every industry. Food, hospitality, auto, legal, medical, engineering. The result is a lot of people without work—assuming that the economy is in fact 99% efficient at creating work for people who have been replaced by robots. I’m not confident that’s the case.
So what then? The answer, hopefully, is not to let those without work starve or go homeless. We perhaps tolerate that to a certain extent in today’s society because we like to think that a surplus of jobs means homeless people are just lazy or made the wrong choices.
But that won’t be the case when my having a job means you’re homeless.
It’s important to understand here that a lack of jobs will not mean a lack of wealth. The lack of jobs will be because of excess labor, not economic deficit. Which means that there will be enough money and economic product to go around.
Billionaires like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerburg, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Bill Gates think that the future economy includes Universal Basic Income, or UBI, for short. Now, I’m not saying billionaires know everything—they certainly don’t—but regarding the economy, I think they know a thing or two. After all, they won the capitalism game. They kind of run the economy. So let’s entertain the idea that UBI is in the future.
UBI is a concept that has existed in principle for a really long time, but has only really gained popularity in the last 100 or so years. UBI is a system where all citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status, are given a cash payment by the government—typically, enough to keep them above the poverty line. It’s often thought of as a socialist idea—it was part of democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s platform in the 2020 election—but support for UBI has come from both sides.
For example, Milton Freidman, supported the UBI in the form of a negative income tax, guaranteeing all citizens to remain above a certain income level. The Austrian School economist, F.A. Hayek, also supported a form of UBI. And even Thomas Paine thought some form of guaranteed income for all individuals was necessary because of the jobs that agricultural cultivation eliminated.
In a future where wealth is created primarily by machines, there won’t be a need to go to work for some, or perhaps most people. Especially if the machines are creating enough wealth for everyone to have their needs covered.
There are other ideas for the future of the economy than UBI, for sure. And of course, maybe as a society, we bank on the idea that we can create more jobs than we create machines to replace jobs. That’s a thought too. But let’s assume UBI happens. What does that mean for our education system?
The future of education
If education and economic systems are symbiotic, then an economy supported by UBI will produce a far different educational experience than that of principally capitalistic meritocracy.
In today’s society, one cannot make it through college or even high school without having conversations centered on how certain subjects of study will or will not help a student with their chosen vocation later in life. As someone who studied music in college, I can say first-hand that the question of “what kind of job are you going to get with a music degree?” hovered in the air like vaporized tar of the school I attended. Students and teachers joked about always being poor because they liked music more than the average human. What a bizarre phenomenon.
Colleges all around the world—not just in the US—use job placement rates for graduates as a metric of success. They attempt to persuade applicants to attend their school by disclosing average salaries of alumni.
In short, the current system of education is undeniably tied to the work you do to live. But that won’t be necessary when you don’t need to work to live.
How will Harvard coax upper-middle class valedictorians to apply for a program when the only guarantee they can make to their students is that it will be more expensive to attend there than a state school?
How will we even decide what makes a valedictorian if we don’t have the hierarchy of subjects? If a student doesn’t need math any more than they need painting, how do we decide what’s core and what’s elective? You won’t need either to live—who’s to say chemistry is more important than marching band?
In reality, the correlation between work and school is built on the assumption that certain vocations are more vital to human existence than others. But that correlation exists only because most vocations are still held by humans and not machines.
When you can employ a Flippy-like robot in every industry, what subjects remain vital to study in school?
Maybe obviously, people will still be needed to operate the machines that fuel the economy. And that’s probably true to some extent, or perhaps even a large extent. And so technical training will probably be an important part of a standard education.
But, to be clear, I don’t believe that humans only learn what’s necessary, so I don’t think that UBI or a machine-driven economy would lead to the evaporating of education as it would the evaporation of most manual labor. Rather, I’m just making the case that the current hierarchy of educational subjects is correlated with the perceived economic benefit of that subject in the job market; and that a shift in the needs of the job market would necessitate a shift in the educational hierarchy paradigm.
As a result, it could be argued that a student’s educational experience in the future would contain a more balanced subject emphasis and course-load. One where, instead of taking eight classes with an absurd bias towards STEM subjects, perhaps a high school student’s list of classes each semester contains only three or four classes with a balanced mixed of arts and sciences.
This could be the case because the current criteria we use to determine topical value will be rendered moot when the economic systems at play progress beyond the what school systems can produce. As such, a new criteria would need to be developed that matches the demands of the new economy. And this may cause a more even-minded approach in the discussion of discipline importance. One where developing your creative and imaginative abilities would be considered just as important as your problem solving or memory skills.
But I believe that the future of education will contain an even more evolved topical selection and curricula.
My belief is that, with a lion-share of economic wealth being generated by AI and machines, there will not only be a balance of science and art, but that there will be a marriage of science and art.
The Unified Theory of Education
The concept of STEM subjects versus the arts is a dichotomy that’s fascinating to me. Specifically because it’s binary.
Humans have a tendency to think in binary. It’s simple, directional, and helps us organize our thoughts. A binary approach help us separate good and bad, qualified and unqualified, or healthy or unhealthy.
But there are two problems with binary thinking: First, computers think in binary—and they’re better at it. And the second is that the world is non-binary. Let’s look at each problem in turn.
To approach education in a binary way will be self defeating in a world run by machines. If the answer to any question is “yes” or “no”, then it’s better answered by a computer. A computer will answer the question more efficiently, more effectively, and more accurately. And if we approach education in a binary fashion, we’ll always be behind machines in our thinking. That doesn’t sound like the way forward to me.
Fortunately, the world is non-binary. To think of any subject as a “science” or “art” is actually absurd. The truth is, the meat of most subjects lies somewhere in the murky middle.
For an example, you can take a look at one of the “scienciest” subjects out there—mathematics.
It’s always fascinating to me to hear people say that “why do we even learn advanced algebra in school anyway? Most people never use it.” And frankly, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Advanced algebra is the process of taking complicated problems, isolating and solving variables, and attempting to understand the trajectory of the situation.
Now, let’s consider the following scenario: you’re at work and a coworker in a supervisor role above you makes some unwanted sexual advances. In order to solve this problem, you need to isolate and solve the variables of each action you could take, and then understand the trajectory of your given choice.
In other words, virtually any time you make a complicated decision, you’re doing advanced algebra. It’s an art, you’re just using steady units to work through the problems.
You could do the same—or rather, the opposite—with any art. Take singing for example. Singing is perhaps the artsiest of arts because it’s all internal. No one really sees what’s going on, you just hear it, or feel it. For all we know, it’s an audio mirage.
Or is it?
It’s pretty common knowledge that sound is vibration, and that the flexing of certain muscles, the degree of opening and shaping of the mouth, and the amount of air pushed out from the lungs all change the sound of that vibration. Those changes in sound are what we perceive as tone, pitch, and volume.
If that’s the case, and a person has a reasonable and normal control of their own muscles, then just like people learn to walk and talk, they can also learn to be terrific singers.
It’s actually very scientific.
And while that’s all well and good, what does it have to do with the future of education?
Well, in the future, hopefully, there won’t be a dichotomy of scientific and artistic subjects. All subjects will be both.
Both math and music will be subjects where students learn critical thinking. Anthropology and literature will be unified in a humanities class. Painting and engineering will both feed student imagination. Theater and psychology will both give insight to the human condition.
This topical unification will allow students to learn about the world in a way that computers don’t, and maybe never will. But that is the lesser reason to marry science and art.
The more important reason is that there will no longer be this pull between binary thinking and the complex nature of humanity. When students are brought up to understand complexity and connection in all subjects, then they will have a greater ability to create sophisticated solutions to the problems in the world around them.
As the world gets more complicated and machines are set to work to solve the simple problems for humanity, humans will be left to deal with greatly complex issues. And an education system that leans into that complexity will have a greater chance of producing students to solve those problems than the current system we have.