Musing: Equipping A Generation To Take Their Place In The Digital Revolution

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Here’s the speech I delivered at the TEDxWandsworth event on equipping a generation for the digital revolution.

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” — William Gibson

Digital inequality has been an in area of interest probably because of the environment I was brought up in. Our house was littered with technology, my Dad worked as what I can only describe as a self employed professional hacker, basically his talent was using his analytical problem solving ability to fix, rebuild or hack what ever a client asked for.

In a very Wallace and Gromit fashion nothing in home was ever broken but re-purposed in one way or another. It’s the kind of place you could imagine a light switch being the mechanism of recycled toaster.

My siblings and I often found ourselves ahead of the curve when it came to digital skills in school. But in my field of youth work I have a lot of exposure to those who a detrimentally effected by digital inequality because they haven’t had the same opportunity.

Digital inequality is how we refer to economic and social inequality with regard to access to, use of, or impact of digital technologies.

One way to look at this issue is imagine a road with many tollgates and at the end of the road is being digitally skilled. Every tollgate is a barrier to reaching digital literacy. Barriers like access to technology or education to use technology stops you at one of those tollgate and those who haven’t had the opportunity to get through early on are falling further and further behind.

Every time the power of the web increases and it’s possible to do more things online the gap widens between those who are digitally literate and those who are not.

These new forms of inequalities can of course combine with existing social inequalities and even make them worse by carrying over differences in human capital in to a digital setting.

So, as a nation renowned for being at the forefront of technological developments, in the city of which the creator of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners Lee was born, what kind of digital inequality could we possibly have? The Office for National Statistic estimates 19.2 million households now have net access and that’s rising but that includes just 26% of those on the lowest incomes. with that in mind it’s also estimated that in this country some 16 million people lack basic online skills.

I saw a brilliant google ad the other day on the underground and took a picture of it. It says knowledge is not always in reach with the ‘not’ crossed out.

I think it really highlights my point because it’s saying that knowledge is always within reach if you have the google app, while that might be true, the google app requires you to have access to both the internet connection and a smart phone and the ability to use both effectively in order for that statement to be true. It might be ‘For everyone’ but not everyone had the opportunity to utilise it.

I was at a talk where I was listening to Lord Chris Holmes and he said ‘One thing we have to consider is how to we psychologically prepare a generation for the digital economy’ and that got me thinking.

The principle of changing our way of thinking, values and believes to adapt to a changing world is nothing new, the world have been through this kind of change many times. The development of technology has always driven shifts in principles and beliefs.

“In the industrial revolution Britain led the world in advances that enabled mass production: trade exchanges, transportation, factory technology and new skills needed for the new industrialised world. – Lucy Powell

So, let’s rewind a bit to the pre-industrialised era. In the pre-industrialised world around 80% of jobs were agriculture base and the likelihood would be any individual’s profession would be very manual and labour intensive, it would take a significant amount of years to master any trade and people would have a trade for life.

The process of product development was long and arduous until we started the development of factories and access to good in relatively inexpensive ways, this was brought about by the growth of industrialisation.

There was many dark sides to this growth like bad working hours and conditions but also lots of social gains too, well-being of people increased, price of products decreased resulting to enhanced quality living, it produced new jobs and for a short spell increases the employment rate.

In my opinion, the con of the industrial revolution is being played out again in the digital revolution. Technology takes the place of human labour, resulting in rising unemployment rate for those people who lack competencies and skills.

I’m not a Luddite by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t think the development of technology per-say is a bad thing at all but as it changes the shape of the economy, it does cause disruption.

“Jobs are a centuries-old concept created during the Industrial Revolution. Despite the reality that we’re now deep in the Information Age, many people are studying for, or working at, or clinging to the Industrial Age idea of a safe, secure job.” Robert Kiyosaki

Now, digital disruption isn’t necessarily the indicator of negative progression, no revolution can be fueled by the notions of the past.

The disruption is not the goal, change is the goal, and disruption is just the bi-product of change.

But we need to start to think of the human implications of that change. To see the extent deskilling one need only go to the supermarket and head to a self-service check out or explore the automation of blue collar workers jobs through technology like 3D printers or in the not to distant future the development of self driving cars.

These are just a few ways we can see technology eroding the human element to operate machinery.

These are all skills and trades that are in the process of having production is slowly being withdrawn from people becoming automated. All of these jobs and many more are beginning to change the shape of the job market.

If we were to visualise the job market of the industrialised era it would look something like a set of draws. It is split in to 3 equal sections, high paid, middle paid, and low paid. The middle section would contain jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive production jobs in manufacturing, all of which typically provided middle-class pay and that’s the section that as the information age has slowly became increasingly automated.

This has created a job market that looks more like an ‘I’ where the middle section are now moving in to the lower paid section like restaurant workers, home health aides, and others doing customer facing service work that is nearly impossible to automate. In fact it is estimated that about 35% of current jobs in the UK are at high risk of computerisation within the next 20 years.

Economic theory and government policy will have to be rethought if technology is indeed destroying jobs faster than it is creating new ones.

“The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing.” – Douglas Engelbart

This is where we need to evaluate what future are we building as a digital economy might look very different any model we currently know.

If that’s the case I think it’s dangerous to the development of a generation be imparting definitive values high standard of living is purely the just reward of hard work and intelligence when a statement like any longer true, if detestably it ever was.

I would like to stress the value of digital skills and the importance. According by a study conducted by telephonica at the end of 2013, Three quarters of a million digitally-skilled worker will be needed to power UK economy by 2017 and if we can’t facilitate that it will cost the UK economy as much as 2 Billion a year. In London alone 27% of all job growth is generated by the tech and digital sector and it’s the focus of schools and the youth sector to impart these skills to young people.

I believe that to prepare young people to take their place in the economy we need to take a far more humanist approach.

Growing up surrounded by technology, my Dad would spend a lot of time teaching me to problem solve, pointing me in the right direction to find answers for myself. My mother on the other hand was very spiritual; her influence was about the fair treatment of people.

“Try not to become a person of success. Rather become a person of value.” — Albert Einstein

When I was 15 when the rug was really pulled out from under my feet. Out of the blue, I began to have tonic-conic seizures, often several times in a day, numerous times a week.

I developed mental heath problems, anxiety, depressive states, and post-traumatic stress manifesting in reoccurring nightmares inducing panic attacks. My self-esteem was shot to pieces and my I felt like my identity was robbed from me partly because I couldn’t see how I was going to take my place in the world.

I started to display challenging behaviour at school, I was struggling to retain any information in class, so tried to I use my technical savvy to compensate though my efforts were often misguided. Some of my antics included breaking in to the teachers laptop to download the answers to tests, creating short programmes on memory sticks and disguising it as my homework so that when they clicked on it, their computer had crashed and convincing them that they had accidentally deleted my homework or when all else failed hacking the school network to give remote access to the whole of 6th form so they could bring up inappropriate web links on peoples computers causing havoc in lessons.

The effort I had put in to my self-preservation of the extent of my illness eventually caught up with me; I was no longer able to keep up appearances for anyone. After finding out about my exploits I was told me with my attitude; I’d never amount to anything.

I dropped out of school with near enough no qualifications to my name.

After 3 years of frequent seizures I was fortunate enough that they began to become less frequent until entirely stopping. I was able to get myself an entry-level job at the local cinema and slowly began to stabilise my life, I spent a lot of evenings trying to self teach myself what I missed out on in school.

I left to try and explore any kind of employment avenues but it was incredibly difficult for me with no qualifications or experience to break into work I found meaningful. It was during this time that I came across the charity the Prince’s Trust and the Team Programme. They support young people who have been disadvantaged into employment, education and training.

The Programme helped me immensely with my confidence and self-esteem but most importantly helped develop the ability to deal with challenges and helped me showcase my digital skills to employers.

Since my seizures stopped I have been worked on various projects, a few of note include supporting on a project for the UK Space agency, written and verbal evidence at select committees, became a researcher for an independent film, worked on digital designs for an ITV documentary and delivered various speeches on digital inequality.  I currently work for the Prince’s Trust delivering programmes supporting young people in a similar position as myself.

Among other factors, having high level of digital literacy and a knack for problem solving allowed me the opportunity to overcome my disadvantage and break in to the job market.

It is what we like to envision technology is enabling a generation to do, using technology as an equaliser to give opportunity to those who otherwise would have not to have it. But having worked in the youth sectors supporting young people I’ve gained a lot of exposure to the adverse affect of digital inequality. Digital inequality in many senses stems from that our social and economic system has not kept up with our technological capabilities.

“It takes a different value system if you wish to change the world.“ – Jacque Fresco

In my opinion I think we have negated the human cost of aggressive digital expansion in this country, predominately by trying to impart industrialised social values on to a generation growing up in the digital revolution.

The problem is, we don’t know what the future will be, we can’t predict the kind of jobs that are going to be available, we don’t know the kind of economy that will shape our society.

But what we fundamentally do know; we do know that part of the human is experience is that we will always encounter challenges and will require resilience to overcome; we know that the ability to solve problems will be essential in the developing digital world.

We know that young people are experiencing higher levels of unemployment, higher levels of mental health issues, increasing dissatisfaction with their own well-being and problems integrating in to a changing economy where they’re becoming disengaged.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission published this October a report that young people suffered the biggest slide in income and employment and now faced higher barriers to achieving economic independence and success than five years ago.

In the 2015 Prince’s Trust youth index 36% of young people feel inadequate on a regular basis, which jumps to 53% of all those not in employment education and training and that leaps to closer to 70% after 6 months of not being engaged in anything.

This year young people scored the lowest scores ever in the index’s seven years history when it came to happiness about their emotional and physical well-being.

We need to start looking at how we are going to drive shifts in principles and believes for the digital revolution to prepare young people to take their place in the digital economy. Here’s where I suggest we start…

In a day and age where we have a greater understanding of the human mind than ever before the most valuable asset we can be passing on is coping mechanism to be able to deal with the challenges caused in this period of digital disruption.

What is at the heart of developing digital skills and coping with mental health issues is it’s the ability to solve problems.

What I want to see is more compassion and understanding for those people who need support. Why can’t we adopt a mind-set that the a high standard of living is not the result of a individual’s intellect or hard-work but down accumulated contributions of every person. There’s a brilliant African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

At the end of the day, without someone giving us a helping hand where would any of us be? I definitely wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for the consideration and compassion of others, personally I don’t think there’s anyone who can say they made it alone. We are interdependent beings in an interdependent society and that needs to be reflected in the values we a imparting to a generation.

We must help everyone to not feel isolated in the new digital world.

No matter the revolution or era, the most valuable resource has been and always will be human potential.

Thank you!

We cannot predict the future, but we can invent It.” – Dennis Gabor

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