A World Without (Much) Work: Building Sanctuary Part 2

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

Supplemental Links:

Fourth Industrial Revolution: Link

Jobless Economy / Automation: Link

Just In Time Labor: Link

Amazon MTurk Wages: Link

Orwell’s Technology: Link

Learning Registry: Link

Oracle: Link

Virginia CyberRange: Link

IoT Home Monitoring: Link and Link

Automated Drones: Link

Mechanical Turks: Link and Link

Gamified Human Resource Platforms: Link

Entertainment Software Association: Link

UpWork: 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

Bluffdale Data Center: Link and Link

Storage of Data Inside DNA: Link and Link

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Orders): Link

IoT Transit / Parking: Link

Prescription Video Game Treatments: Link

Attentiveness Algorithms Online Education: Link

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