Bulletin 18 January 2019. When is a skills gap not a skills gap?

Two lemmas walk into a bar…

The only time I have ever heard the term ‘lemma’ used in anger was in my second year at university, in my (I think) T22 lectures around the theories of computation. I can’t remember the name of the lecturer but I do remember admiring his large, bushy beard… sadly it was not enough to distract me from the fact that I rarely had a clue what he was talking about. Another word I remember him using was ‘intuitively’, generally placed between two completely incomprehensible statements. Perhaps I should have concentrated more: I do remember thinking that, if only I could understand what it was he was saying, I might be better off. 

Nonetheless, the notion of lemmas stuck; as did the minor linguistic epiphany about a dilemma being the juxtaposition of two opposing ideas. Every time I hear the word dilemma, I proudly tell myself about this wonderful feat of etymological prowess. I did try to tell others, but it fell on strangely deaf ears. I know, right? To the point: this entire digression came to me when I was thinking about one example of a di-lemma (even if it is not necessarily a dilemma. I will quickly move on). 

Technology, we are told, is going to put a bunch of people out of a job. I won’t google for a link right now, but articles on this are legion (to the extent that I felt pressed to write a counterpoint, also somewhere out there in the ether). The principle is that automation does away with both manual and intellectual labour: following the usual, attention-grabbing headline, most articles suggest that people will (have to) find new work to do. My many beefs with this perspective are irrelevant, but could be summarised by noting that the same writers were probably wrong about the death of books as well. 

Meanwhile, however, there seems to be no halt to the need for skills. Alongside cultural issues preventing change, a lack of knowledge and expertise in <insert technology area here> is generally stated as a top-three reason slowing down progress. Now, I’m not being so trite as to suggest that all them poor blue- and white-collar workers can ‘simply’ become programmers. However it does strike me as interesting that the hive mind can hold both perspectives in its virtual head without noting any connection or conflict between them. And I do wonder whether this need is as wrong-footed as the previous one. 

How so? An interesting thought experiment is to look back on how we might view the now, from the perspective of a few decades’ time. Some might suggest that we will have achieved the Singularity by then, which I doubt for a baker’s dozen of other reasons. But whether we have or not, the chances are that today’s world will be marked as being pretty primitive compared to what’s coming. Not only will the the platforms we depend upon have become much smarter and self-managing, but also, the ways we use technology will be more mature and sophisticated. 

Example: a Facebook friend pointed out how the “ten-year challenge” was interesting not only in how people were more savvy about the potential risks to privacy (“You’re just enabling facial recognition AI to get better trained, guv”), but also, how the topic could be written about and understood by a broad audience. We will look back on this period as akin to frontierlands, ruled by lawlessness and corruption as we discovered just how powerful technology could be. And then, we emerged from a state of naive acceptance of abuse, to a place where it was blindingly obvious what was right and wrong. 

In other words, both technology and we will become more savvy. At the moment we’re still in a state with tech where we talk about ‘involving the business’ even though ‘the business’ is already more than involved. And there’s a larger point: many of the skills we think we need are to do with coping with the technological mess we currently live within. My hypothesis is that technology will become both more capable and less intrusive, doing away with the need for (say) social media “experts” and allowing us to get on with tasks that are a bit more rewarding. Putting alternative scenarios such as Skynet aside, that may mean we find the skills we require are the same ones we always needed. 

Bulletin 18 January 2019. When is a skills gap not a skills gap?

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