Speak Your Piece: Confront the New Threat of Technology with an Old Idea

The economic disruption of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could steal jobs and wealth from American communities. To make sure more than just a few people prosper from the change, we need a technology training program like the Extension Service to give communities more control of their own economic future.

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If we keep obsessing about whether robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will put millions of people out of work, we’re going to miss a once-in-a-century opportunity, according to a new report from the nonprofit Makers All.

In the next 20 years, not only robots and AI but also augmented and virtual reality, digital fabrication, and other emerging tech will create an abundance of wealth.  If we can give communities the power to shape this technology and the impact it has on them, we can create an economy that works for all.

How do we do it? By taking a lesson from our agricultural past.

Robots and AI threaten to shatter the link between wealth and broad prosperity: new industries may not create enough good jobs.  But if we can put everyday people in the driver’s seat, if we can train millions of adults from Harlem to Harlan County to become developers and designers, they can capture a big enough slice of emerging tech’s wealth to help revitalize our communities.

University of Georgia Extension agents look down on cotton plants at the Ponder Farm in Tifton as part of an agent-in-training session, led by UGA Extension personnel. (Photo by UGA CAES/Extension via Flickr, Creative Commons)

The idea of training millions of adults to master a complex technological skill might seem like wishful thinking. It’s not. We’ve done it before, with Extension Services.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the U.S. faced a similarly daunting challenge. How could we ensure millions of farmers mastered the basics of soil science and other complex knowledge and practices that made up modern agriculture?  After several failed efforts, the U.S. created Extension Services, a massive community-oriented program that:

Collaborated with communities to make modern farming techniques and tools much more accessible.

Embedded Extension agents in every agricultural county, helping farmers leverage the power of community and peer-oriented learning to spread modern agricultural practices.

A message from the Rural Assembly

Using the lessons of Extension Services, the report argues we can truly democratize emerging tech using the following three strategies:

Smooth the Learning Curve. Today, coding can be painfully hard to learn. We need to do for emerging tech what Extension Services did for ag tech: redesign it so it’s easier for everyday adults to learn. To do so, we should apply “user experience” (UX) design — a mainstay of modern web design — to the world of programming via community-oriented coding UX.

Develop an Ecosystem of Community-Oriented Support.  We need to transform our current piecemeal approach to training and support so it harnesses the power of community and operates on the scale that Extension Services did.  As we do so, we also need to build a better bridge between training and work.

Integrate Tech Training and Civic Engagement Training. In the next 20 years, emerging tech will upend some of our core assumptions about how markets work, creating opportunities to reshape the rules of the road so our economy works for everyone. But if we want all communities to have a seat at the table, we must learn from the experience of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement’s Citizenship Schools, whose approach overcomes some of Extension Services’ limitations, and teach both the technical and the civic engagement skills needed to truly participate.

Equally importantly, the report argues, we must change our mindset. Why does the idea of training millions of people in emerging tech coding seem like wishful thinking? Because just like the first attempts to revolutionize agricultural training, our solutions so far aren’t up to the challenge. For example:

Most community-based tech training efforts can only get funding for a fraction of the resources they need.

Unlike Extension Services, our current efforts aren’t accountable at the scale we need. We don’t regularly ask, are we transforming every community?

The tech world prides itself on being insanely ambitious, and yet the reason we’re failing so many communities is that we aren’t being ambitious enough. That’s the main lesson of Extension Services. If Apple’s coders learned a thing or two from apple growers, we’d all be better off.

The key to unlocking our future is in our past. If we can do for emerging tech what we did for agriculture, we can help communities from Harlem to Harlan County gain the power they need to shape their destinies. It won’t solve all the economic problems created by robots and AI; not everyone is going to become a programmer or designer. But it can serve as one critical foundation for rebuilding our communities and making them whole.

Anders Schneiderman is the founder and director of Makers All. He is a sociologist turned techie, with over 30 years of experience as a developer, software project manager and adult tech trainer at labor unions, corporations, nonprofits, and government.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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