Curiosity, irreverence, imagination, sense of humour, a free and open mind, an acceptance of the relativity of values and of the uncertainty of life, all inevitably fuse into the kind of person whose greatest joy is creation. He conceives of creation as the very essence of the meaning of life. In his constant striving for the new, he finds that he cannot endure what is repetitive and unchanging. For him hell would be doing the same thing over and over again.
Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals 1971
The robots are coming: they are coming to take our jobs, they are coming to take our place in the world and in some doomsday scenarios they may even be coming to take our lives. The first have already arrived and they are making their mark – in our factories, in our homes and hospitals and schools, and in our armed forces. Time is running out…
Or so some of the more lurid headlines would have us believe.
The truth is that, while there have been some remarkable advances in AI and robotics in recent years with the promise of even faster development in the near future, it is surely self-evident that human beings, flawed as we may be, still hold the best hand in the game. Providing we choose to play it wisely. And that means playing to our strengths.
This is my fortieth year of working in education and it sometimes seems to me that throughout every one of those years the notion of 21st Century Skills has been bandied about interminably, an endless mantra tunelessly chanted by one educational guru after another. As if creativity, collaboration, communication, et al were somehow new to the classroom and their sudden arrival on the scene was going to change everything.
It is a long time since I was at university but recently I came across a reference to a controversial American writer and political thinker who – all those many years ago – was the source of much heated debate and discussion. I feel sure that Saul Alinsky was a man who would have had a great deal to say about the rise of the robots. In Rules for Radicals, written just a year before he died in 1972, Alinsky set out his list of the ideal elements of a community organiser, the term he used for what we might now call a political activist. With just a little poetic licence, I believe these key characteristics are what give us the edge over the machines that threaten to overthrow us.
The first is curiosity
For the organiser life is a search for a pattern, for similarities in seeming differences, for differences in seeming similarities, for an order in the chaos about us, for a meaning to the life around him and its relationship to his own life – and the search never ends…
And the second is irreverence
Curiosity and irreverence go together. Curiosity cannot exist without the other. Curiosity asks, “Is this true?” “Just because this has always been the way, is this the best or right way of life, the best or right religion, political or economic value, morality?”
Now it may well be that we can develop an inquisitive robot and, indeed, we may already have done so. A year after a computer beat a human world champion in the ancient strategy game of Go, researchers claim they have now constructed an even more powerful version of the earlier program – one that can teach itself without the benefit of human knowledge. The program, known as AlphaGo Zero, became a Go master in just three days by playing 4.9 million games against itself in quick succession. In this way it managed to acquire all of the Go knowledge accumulated by humans over thousands of years of playing, sometimes actually choosing to go further, seeing patterns no human had discovered in all that time.
But curiosity and irreverence? A deliberately disruptive and anarchic robot? Outside the realms of science fiction that might prove to be more elusive, particularly if we accept the deep paradox at the heart of Alinsky’s questioning irreverent organiser:
He is challenging, insulting, agitating, discrediting. He stirs unrest. As with all life, this is a paradox, for his irreverence is rooted in a deep reverence for the enigma of life, and an incessant search for its meaning. It could be argued that reverence for others, for their freedom from injustice, poverty, ignorance, exploitation, discrimination, disease, war, hate, and fear, is not a necessary quality in a successful organiser. All I can say is that such reverence is a quality I would have to see in anyone I would undertake to teach.
The third and fourth attributes are imagination and a sense of humour
Alinsky understood that life is essentially tragedy teetering precariously on the edge of comedy:
One can change a few lines in any Greek tragedy and it becomes a comedy, and vice versa.
Knowing that contradictions, sometimes apparently absurd and unpredictable contradictions, can be signposts of progress, the organiser is always on the lookout for them – and a healthy sense of humour helps him to identify and make some sort of sense out of them. It is our sense of humour that enables us to maintain our perspective and to see ourselves for what we truly are while, conversely, an irrational unpredictable world offers uncomfortably hostile terrain for the marching machines!
Then there is what Alinsky calls a bit of a blurred vision of a better world
I like this. It goes without saying that an organiser must be good at organising and, of course, this generally suggests the ability to focus, an eye for detail and an understanding of priorities. All important, I know – but these are the forte of the machine, the realms where robots rule.
That blurred vision of a better world is a distant ill-defined image of something bigger that is worth reaching for, that makes all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile and gives life meaning. Many of the greatest advances in human history have come about because someone believed life could be different, because someone dreamt that the world could somehow become a better place.
Almost completing the list we have ego and a free and open mind
Ego is a difficult concept but I think that Alinsky uses it to describe self-belief, the confidence to overcome doubt in order to do what needs to be done. And, of course, it takes a lot of confidence to stand comfortably in the shoes of others. If you believe in yourself you can live with the knowledge that the world is an uncertain place, that values are relative and that, no matter how much you think you know, there is much that you still have to learn. You may even have the strength of mind to entertain the possibility that you might be wrong.
And finally, there is communication
One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer – with one exception – and still be effective and successful. That exception is the art of communication. It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.
Communication with others takes place when they understand what you’re trying to get across to them. If they don’t understand, then you are not communicating regardless of words, pictures, or anything else.
Almost half a century has passed since Saul Alinsky set out these ideas in Rules for Radicals and I freely admit that I may have taken just a few liberties in my interpretation of them here. Nevertheless, I think the central tenet of my argument still stands: if in our schools we can encourage the growth and development of the kind of person whose greatest joy is creation, the robots will never win.