Skills deficit undermines 4IR promises

TECHNOLOGY

Pattern recognition: we are all born with it. It is how we learn language, how we survive, how we make sense of the world. Without this mania for detecting repetition and exception, our lives would be even shorter and more violent, and we would not be able to wrestle meaning from the chaos and disorder of our encounter with the cosmos.

Education, both formal and informal, is meant to sharpen our capacity for pattern recognition.
And given the challenges that face us, not just as individuals or communities, not only as societies and nation states, but as a species, our very survival once more depends on this capacity to connect the dots, and to deduce from signs the way forward. Pattern recognition allows for extrapolation and predicting the outcomes of actions while they are in process, but also before they are even begun.

There is currently much fanfare for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) from powerful agents and agencies, both in government and the private sector in South Africa. Ministerial officials have even turned it into branding on their clothing as they championed 4IR in Parliament. It is, we are told, “the future”.

As with other such concepts, there is little clarity and specificity from South African 4IR advocates about what they really mean by it. Their explanations abound with buzz­words: “technological revolution”, “digital migration”, “coding” and a smörgâsbord of other such shibboleths. It is the language of the sales pitch deployed as if it were science.

The fanfare for 4IR (it has become like a brand) goes beyond insignia on ministerial blazers. The ways in which it is spoken about by many with political and economic power locally echoes, eerily, the language of the World Economic Forum statements on this fourth industrial revolution.

The 4IR sales pitches promise a bright future (think Star Trek), and suggest there is a time limit on taking up the offer of progress it holds out. The 4IR train is about to leave the station, and if you’re not quick about it, you’ll be left behind. Some of us recognise the spiel from call centre operators’ attempts to sell “time share”.

But in South Africa we suffer from skills deficits that are much more fundamental than the ones we are being urged to address ahead of the 4IR. This deficit must be urgently addressed if we are to fix our current problems, never mind the ones looming on the horizon for which the 4IR offers no answers. There is debate about the extent of the troubles with literacy among 10-year-olds, but not that it exists. Illiteracy is not only confined to our children. Functional literacy is not enough to deal with the challenges of the world. It certainly will not be enough to tackle future troubles.

Think of the rideshare drivers who never learn to know the city they work in and have stopped reading and following street signs and building names because the navigation tool is thought omnipotent. Remember the bank branch manager who tells you to call the call centre because they cannot assist you. Recall the pharmacist who cannot work out how many tablets to give you if the script schedules five on the first day and gradually reducing the dose by one each day.

Technology is touted as a panacea for our troubles, not just as individuals or communities, but as societies and nations, sometimes even as a species. Reliance on technology — because human made, fallible — is resulting in further de-skilling of an already under-skilled population.

The new tech-dependent sharing economy holds out the promise of gains for the many, but also requires of those who wish to benefit from it to enter into relations of continuous consumption: newer devices all the time, because obsolescence is built into the technology; constant software updates often beyond the means of those precariously employed in a country with high data costs.

Writer, philosopher, semiotician and academic Umberto Eco warned against mistaking technology for science, suggesting we are more like mediaeval Europeans who believed in magic because they did not understand the chain by which cause and effect were linked. The magic pill of new technology will not undo growing economic and social inequality, neither here in South Africa nor elsewhere on Earth.

Indeed, the fortunate, monied minority will reap some short-term benefits, which will allow for positive lifestyle changes — some forms of greater efficiency — but it will also expel from productive sectors large swathes of the world’s population. Profits, after all, will have (even greater) precedence over people.

Those who have taught in universities have seen the consequences of that underdevelopment in basic education, even among the cream of the crop, those who survived and scored well enough in school-leaving examinations to enter faculties of science and applied science.

For half a decade I heard colleagues complain about the inability of their science and engineering students to think in the terms of analytical geometry and, more distressingly, to work out volume or sketch and interpret three-dimensional diagrams despite distinctions in mathematics and physics.

Map reading skills, being able to recognise two dimensional diagrams of three dimensional objects, quick arithmetical calculations, understanding the nature of a contract, being able to foresee the consequences of actions, being able to tell the difference in tone and register between a news broadcast and a situation comedy, are skills many of us take for granted. We have them, and so our lives are frustrated when we are confronted by people whose jobs require such skills and who lack them. Imagine the lives of such people who are now being encouraged to enter the 4IR.

We have much to catch up on. The poor education system has seemingly undone the natural propensity for pattern recognition most of us are born with. It explains the inadequate levels of critical literacy, which go some way towards accounting for some of the troubles which blight this society politically.

Without being able to read for meaning, how do we expect our children to pick up a scientific understanding of the world? Without that scientific understanding, how do we expect them to logically detect the relations between objects and events in their lives, to tell cause from effect, and these from correlation? Without such capacity, how do we expect them to take on the challenges coming, not just the ones that the 4IR promises to solve, but also the problems it will engender?

As we contemplate the “coming” of the 4IR, we may need to better equip a population deliberately kept out of the first three by colonial and apartheid underdevelopment. This would require urgent intervention in basic skills, including literacy and numeracy. But more than that, it requires undoing the spiral of poverty and its dire developmental consequences for the majority of South Africans.

Hunger hampers education and, if education is already compromised, subjecting children to chronic malnutrition during their formative years essentially curses them to an existence on the periphery of the tech-future. They will be superfluous people, not even surplus people.

Our children need to be able to read and write, and learn to think logically and scientifically, to solve problems rationally. Giving them tablets and smart devices when their homes are energy-insecure does not address their fundamental needs. Smart classrooms are admirable achievements, but they serve no purpose when those inside them are not taught well, or at all. Learning to code while being unable to read for meaning condemns young people to a new kind of servitude, worker bees generating profit for others, eking out an existence on the margins of life.

In some senses South Africans know that ill distribution of life chances and resources only too well: it is our past. In some senses it is also the present in many of our cities and their suburbs. Economist, political scientist and world-systems analyst Samir Amin and writer, Marxist, environmentalist and historian Mike Davis have warned against making this the new reality: economic apartheid on a “planet of slums”. We should certainly prepare ourselves for the future, technologised and otherwise, but we should not neglect the crisis of our present made in the distant and recent past.

The skills needed to engage the 4IR must be built on the skills needed to address the political, social, economic and ecological troubles of the present, not at the expense of those.

Angelo Fick is the director of research at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute

Angelo Fick

Angelo Fick

Angelo Fick is the director of research at ASRI. His research explores questions of race, gender, class, and the political economy of post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa. Read more from Angelo Fick