This is the second of a seven-part series that outlines a potential future where online education is surveilled by authoritarian interests, and strivers, like Talia and her daughters, attempt to secure a precarious living within the constraints of oppressive “Smart” City policies. The introduction to the series and Part One: Plugging In can be read here.
Part 2: A World Without (Much) Work
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution got underway, automation wiped out more and more jobs. The disappearance of industrial work was grudgingly accepted. Then self-driving vehicles replaced truckers, bus drivers, delivery people, and car services. Even so, many were taken aback when digitization came for the service sector. As Artificial Intelligence hit its stride, teachers, nurses, therapists, paralegals, actuaries, financial advisors, film editors all found themselves cast aside, scrambling for new careers. It seemed everyone who could work switched to coding and cyber security. The threat posed by hacks to the vast Internet of Things had spiraled out of control, and they needed more and more people to build and maintain the simulations.
After tech and energy, the entertainment sector experienced some of the biggest growth from the shift to digital life. Talia supplements the family’s meager digital stipend working as a Mechanical Turk. She picks up gigs, small jobs, coding bits of virtual worlds when people go off the scripts prepared by the Entertainment Software Group. Having a background in art gives her an advantage. Talia’s high creativity ratings keep her near the top of the MicroWork platform where freelancers compete for short-term or even micro employment.
These days, though, it’s getting more and more difficult to earn hard digital credit. Many posted gigs are now issuing payment in skill points that can boost a person’s citizen score but can’t be exchanged for durable goods or used to pay down debt. If things don’t let up soon she’ll be forced to figure out some other way to meet monthly expenses that often exceed what’s deposited to their Global Coin account.
As living wage jobs disappeared, social unrest grew. The Solutionists recognized it was dangerous to have young people together in one place where frustrations might coalesce into a challenge of state authority. Neighborhood schools in particular were a point of concern, since they were one of the few remaining civic spaces where people routinely gathered. Device-based education provided an answer to this thorny problem. They would market it as “Future Ready,” an innovative new approach in which students would get a “personalized” education that, incidentally, was also surveilled and isolated.
It would play well to American ideals of individualism and consumerism. Promotional literature described this transformation as a learning ecosystem where “the city is your classroom;” only in reality most of the instruction took place online. Spread out in homes or small non-profit or faith-based settings, students would be easier to control, especially given universal adoption of smart home technology, always-listening AI personal assistants, and Domain Awareness public surveillance systems.
Online learning management systems also allowed authorities to carefully regulate educational content. Adoption of Open Education Resources meant Solutionists could edit, delete, or suppress information that might lead to troubling questions or dissident thoughts. Editing history could be easily accomplished with a few clicks via the Learning Registry. Orwell had laid it out years before, and now these addictive devices had evolved, as he predicted, into tele-screens that gazed out at citizens while citizens gazed in at them.
A few times a week students unplugged and participated in a community-based learning program related to their career pathway, but RFID chips associated with their Citi Badges ensured they remained visible to the system. Any organization accepting even a micropayment from Global Coin vouchers like maker spaces, art studios, community theater, and apprenticeship programs had to comply with set standards and participate in evidence-based, outcomes-driven programs that fed children’s data back into government systems. Student data was used to assess a program’s “success” and determine payments to the service provider and those who had invested in it.
When the Solutionists rolled out learning ecosystems, they also made skill dashboards public. Skills dashboards are dynamic visualizations of each person’s academic, behavioral, and job training data. The dashboards, tied to Citi Badges, foster a culture of fierce competition among citizens since choice opportunities are limited, of course, to top performers. As long as most people remain strivers and focus on competing against one another to get to the top, organized resistance remains unlikely.
After the lockdown, the expectation was that everyone would be required to participate in lifelong learning tied to workforce development. Industries that still employed actual people demanded a “just-in-time” labor force. No in-house training or professional development was provided. Instead, citizens were expected to self-finance their continued education, storing skills in an online learning locker with the hopes that they might successfully run the gauntlet and secure full-time employment. Few got that brass ring. Instead most were left with punishing debt for online course tuition that never led to paid work.
The decision to swap human teachers for online systems meant less money needed to be spent on salaries. As a result, more money could be directed to the tech and telecommunications industries. It also boosted data collection. All of that data allowed the Solutionists to profile citizens from very young ages. After they took control of the global economy, a decision was made to upload all digital interactions to a data network known as Oracle.
Communications, interactions with gaming and instructional platforms, home-monitoring updates, work activities, and Citi Badge transactions were all funneled into the system. That way if a person was accused of a crime, all their data could be easily queried for evidence. As new laws were imposed, authorities could also run queries of past conversations, searches, and educational resources that citizens had accessed to predict who, based on their history, was likely to break the new law and tag them for increased surveillance. Not quite pre-crime, not quite Minority Report, but close.
Securing all of that information was a challenge, but the ability to store digital data in DNA came just in time. Government server farms like the NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah took an incredible amount of energy and water to cool. Rising fuel prices and prolonged drought made maintaining those dated systems nearly impossible. DNA storage centers were less resource-intensive. They could be distributed throughout the country, their operations largely, but not fully automated.
Crews of disposable children labored around the clock finessing millions of vials of DNA into housings that linked their valuable contents to the vast dataset in the cloud. With their keen eyesight and nimble fingers, children were perfect for the work. Their little bodies darted cautiously and continuously among the tightly spaced racks and industrial processing machinery. These were kids who never got to upload or declare a pathway, but hadn’t yet been off-lined. As long as they remained small, they could work in the claustrophobic data-mines doing Global Coin piecework. It was a grim existence, one evoking days of textile mills and child doffers.
In another age Talia would have been the type to homeschool her kids. Given the option, she’d prefer to stay out of the Oracle system entirely. Ironically everyone is now “homeschooled,” and the freedoms the approach had originally promised have been subverted. Kids are homeschooled AND surveilled. Even though she’s a gifted technologist, Talia resists the virtual.
She held onto her books and even keeps a small stash of transit tokens in the junk drawer of the kitchen. Cam has caught her fingering them absentmindedly, trying to conjure memories of a time when you could move anonymously through the city; at least as far as the subway line would take you. Today access to transportation is all done through Citi Badge. Everyone’s movements upload to Oracle and anything out of the ordinary could trigger a visit from a representative of the traffic analysis review board. No, anonymity is now a privilege of sanctuary citizens, the elite who live in sensor-free compounds far from Smart Cities like New York.
While Li might have liked to hang out with friends in the park, Talia doesn’t want to have her identified as someone who regularly travels there. Parks are not viewed as productive spaces. Parks represent an earlier age of leisure, informal socializing, and connection to the natural world, all frowned upon under the Solutionist regime. She doesn’t want to expose Li to the robot patrols either. Li is not yet savvy about the ways of the world. She must instead settle for an hour in an online chat room every once in awhile, but it’s not the same. Cam sees her younger sister becoming more irritable and withdrawn, but there is no easy remedy. She keeps her worries to herself hoping Li won’t be forced into a prescription video game treatment program.
Just before she goes to bed, Cam contemplates logging in to complete one more module of SkywardSkills, the supplemental program all the kids are supposed to participate in on top of their online schoolwork. If she can get enough points to bump her Lexiles, reading metrics, to the next level, maybe the system will cut her some slack and let her enjoy a book for just for fun. If she doesn’t hit her projected target in a timely fashion her device starts to buzz with texts and emoticons that encourage her to login in for more “growth.”
But today it’s late, and the dry non-fiction pieces are likely to put her to sleep, a fact that won’t be lost on the algorithm that monitors her keystrokes and eye movements. Going too slow or too fast means Cam will be coded as disengaged which will actually lower her score. So instead, she decides to turn out the light and call it a night.
Continue to Part 3: “Smart” and Surveilled Link
Fourth Industrial Revolution: Link
Jobless Economy / Automation: Link
Just In Time Labor: Link
Amazon MTurk Wages: Link
Orwell’s Technology: Link
Learning Registry: Link
Virginia CyberRange: Link
Automated Drones: Link
Gamified Human Resource Platforms: Link
Entertainment Software Association: Link
Koru Predictive Hiring: Link
Unilever Game Based Hiring: Link
Online Reputation Management in the Gig Economy: Link
Universal Basic Income and Blockchain: Link
Biometric Government ID Systems / Aadhar: Link
Sesame Credit China: Link
Social Media Ranking Systems/ Black Mirror “Nosedive” Episode: Link
Online Skill Portfolios: Link
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Orders): Link
IoT Transit / Parking: Link
Prescription Video Game Treatments: Link
Attentiveness Algorithms Online Education: Link