Building Sanctuary: A Dystopian Future We Must Fight To Avoid

The next wave of education reform is one part of a much larger societal shift that hinges on the use of Big Data, predictive analytics, and digital profiling to control populations in a world of growing economic uncertainty and unrest. What follows is a speculative dystopian scenario, a world that could very well emerge from systems being put in place right now. It centers on two sisters, Cam and Li, who live in a near future New York where authorities have come to view human life primarily as a source from which to extract financial profit. Many elements of the story read like science fiction, but they are not. I’ve included links to sources at the end of each post so you can explore this reality for yourself.

The future is uncertain and unlikely to play out exactly as described. Nevertheless, we must begin to comprehend how technological developments combined with concentrated power and extreme income inequality are leading us to increasingly automated forms of oppression. My hope is that communities will begin to incorporate an understanding of this bigger picture into resistance efforts for public education and beyond. Let us join together, embracing our humanity, to fight the forces that would bring us to “lockdown.” How can we preserve our lives and those of our loved ones outside the data stream? How can we nurture community in a world where alienation is becoming normalized? What do we owe one another? What are we willing to risk? I have divided my story into seven parts. I hope you’ll read along and consider sharing it with others.

Building Sanctuary

Part 1: Plugging In

The year is 2040. Cam is thirteen. She should be an eighth grader, but after the government dismantled schools, lifelong online learning replaced classrooms and grades. Now she’s just another free-range kid with a tablet, username and login. She dreams of building an e-portfolio that’s competitive enough to land a job that will keep her out of the state’s virtual reality (VR) warehouses.

In a world increasingly without work, many people opt to go the avatar route. Plug in and you can curate your own online brand; refine the essence of your character into a parallel, gamified version of yourself and craft your own reality. Digital currency buys so much more in the virtual world that people choose to spend most of their waking hours there. It kills their intellect, but at least keeps them from overdosing in parks, libraries and cars, as was the case at the height of the opioid epidemic. Virtual reality is a socially acceptable addiction. Less deadly than heroin, it keeps bodies intact for continued data extraction.

It was ultimately fortuitous that the retail apocalypse shuttered so many shopping centers. Investors seized the opportunity to transform them into networks of virtual reality warehouses with connected dormitories for those who had been evicted or lost homes. Capitalism had made the leap to the digital realm the decade prior. It seemed a logical next step. Some with insider knowledge anticipated the Bitcoin crash and scrambled to invest their phantom wealth in virtual real estate on the Blockchain.

Those in the know who shifted their investments made a handsome profit, but many more who did not change course lost it all. As poverty decimated the middle class, authorities rolled out a basic income program in digital currency called Global Coin. Everyone’s Global Coin account was linked to a unique digital identity through a system known as Citi Badge. The Citi Badge system relies on biometric information to confirm validity of payments and other transactions associated with a particular citizen.

For several decades behaviorists had been using popular world-building games and classroom management apps to condition children to change their purchase behaviors. Rather than actual physical goods, which were becoming harder to procure as the world’s resources were depleted, children were encouraged to embrace digital facsimiles. Who needed a closet full of real clothes when you could acquire a trendy wardrobe for your avatar at a much lower price?

Schools eagerly embraced the concept, encouraging kids who couldn’t yet read to code and program. In the minds of administrators, as long as students had a square on which to plant their avatar, they would have the freedom to choose their own version of the world, which they felt was a kindness. The real one was becoming more toxic by the day. Despite the initial novelty, there was a growing sense of unease and pushback, especially among the youth. They saw platform life for what it was, a hollow shell and a means to disempower their generation. In response they began adopting creative strategies to compromise the system by inputting bad data and refusing to comply.

There are some luxurious VR warehouses outfitted with ergonomic fixtures of the finest materials and lounges where people still have the opportunity to talk face-to-face and re-anchor themselves in reality. Most, however, are just sheds of dinged-up headsets and grimy mats. Once immersed in their virtual worlds, people don’t much notice, but it does take a toll on the body. After months of immersion people begin to lose muscle mass and often develop bedsores and joint pain from lack of movement.

Daily retinal scans are required for admission to the VR warehouses. Debt non-payment, dissident behavior, mental instability or a host of other qualifiers can shut down your Citi Badge, which permanently cuts you off from the digital economy and all services, including VR and shelter. For those who’ve been off-lined, access to even the grimmest VR warehouse is prohibited.

Those pushed off-line attempt to scavenge a living from the streets, but since much of the population has shifted to digital life in the warehouses, food is increasingly hard to find. Managers of the VR dormitories use tracking sensors to keep close tabs on nutrition shipments, and nothing goes to waste. Early on the Solutionists, the authoritarian technocratic governance council that took over after the lockdown, used robotic patrols to round up off-liners and put them in work camps. With less and less physical work to be done, the authorities were disinclined to continue supplying even basic provisions and shelter and eventually shut down the camps and left the off-liners to fend for themselves.

Drones with facial recognition quickly take care of the ones who pose a true threat, and having starving citizens in public view tends to keep everyone else in line. People prefer to distance themselves from this reality. The uncomfortable presence of the off-liners leads most strivers, those trying to work within the constraints of the system, to stay indoors as much as possible. No one wants to compromise their citizen score by lending aid to those in distress, and avoiding off-liners entirely has become almost impossible.

These days many kids get plugged in early, especially if they are black or brown or poor or an immigrant or have special needs. If the metrics indicate their human capital doesn’t justify continued investment, they’re culled from the education rolls. For every thirty children receiving online pre-k services, odds are only one will complete an educational pathway and attain regular paid employment. Investors aren’t inclined to waste crypto-currency on anyone who’s at risk of not meeting standards. Once a child reaches the age of nine, it’s all about triage. Students whose human capital is deemed insufficient for the actual workforce might be sent to do piece work in the data mines, or if they’re lucky added to the ranks of the data generators in the VR warehouses.

Of course, there are children who never make it that far. Mortality rates for the poor surged after adoption of personalized medicine smart contracts; treatment handed over to algorithms that determined when a patient could see a human doctor, which was rare. Fewer and fewer people wanted to train to become licensed doctors because crushing student loan debt, a daunting workload and bureaucratic micro-management made the profession increasingly undesirable.

Now, people train to manage tele-health chatbots. These chatbots are notorious for misdiagnosis and rigid enforcement of treatment compliance whether or not it’s effective or accepted by the patient. They may thoughtlessly prescribe medications that have become impossible to acquire if a person’s citizen score is too low, which means many of the most vulnerable are labeled “problem patients.” Because pay-for-performance determines how tele-health providers are paid, eventually such patients find it nearly impossible to access even online care. No health system wants to accept patients that will lower their rating.

Fortunately Cam has been blessed with good health, and her student data dashboard indicates she has potential. It updates in real time, drawing information from her online activities and a variety of education-oriented Internet of Things (IoT) sensors embedded in her learning environments. She hasn’t given up hope that she will be able to maintain her striver status, get a job, and keep her family out of the virtual world. She knows it won’t be easy and is steeling herself for the many challenges that living life in the real world will pose.

She was assigned to the healthcare training pathway on her tenth birthday. That was when the ledger ran her academic, social-emotional, and genomic profiles and made the decision. She uploaded a year early, because participating in online pre-kindergarten gave her a head start building the dataset required. Healthcare is one of the three industry sectors assigned to her community. If she can earn enough badges in higher-level science and mathematics she just might be able to jump from the home health aide track to one for personalized medicine analytics. Those are the sought after jobs, some of the few that pay more than the Global Coin stipend.

Cam has always been motivated, so plowing through the soul-crushing online modules has been tolerable, but her younger sibling Li chafes against digital life. Li draws her energy from being with people, but opportunities for real interactions are few and far between. In a world where digital interactions are prized above face-to-face encounters, where control is valued over serendipity Li doesn’t really fit in. She’s the type of kid who has never met a stranger. She engages with everyone, which sometimes causes problems when the family leaves the house.

Li doesn’t really understand the difference between strivers and off-liners. Countless times her mom, Talia, has had to drag her away from street games with offline kids when they were out running errands. Play, in public? Even though one could make a case for it developmentally, this type of unstructured socializing was considered a spectacle, a dangerous one that could attract the attention of authorities. A few moments of parental distraction is all Li needs. The family’s reputation score is marginally above average, but they can’t risk being dragged down by her antics. Now that Cam is older she’s been assigned to be Li’s minder when they go out, which feels unfair. She’d much rather plug into edu-casts and get ahead on her modules than have to try and contain her sister’s exuberant energy.

Continue to Part Two: A World Without (Much) Work Link

Supplemental Links

Global Education Futures Forum Agenda: Link

Pain Management / Virtual Reality: Link

Learning Ecosystems: Link

Blockchain and Universal Basic Income: Link

E-Portfolios / Badges: Link

Cities of LRNG / Badges: Link

Online Preschool: Link

Hackable High School: Link

Open Education Resources: Link

Learning Registry (Department of Defense/Department of Education): Link

Career Pathways: Link

Workforce Readiness “Soft Skills” Diploma Seals: Link

Virtual Economies: Link

Behavior Management / Classroom Economy: Link

Virtual Real Estate on Blockchain: Link

Virtual Reality Studios: Link

Precarious Housing in Internet Cafes: Link and Link

Virtual Reality and Neuroscience: Link

Virtual Economies: Link

Fielding Graduate University: Link

Retail Apocalypse: Link

Minecraft Education: Link

RedCritter for Teachers: Link

Human Capital Investments in Education: Link

Third Grade Reading Guarantee: Link

Student Data Dashboards: Link

Scholarchip: Link

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