I’m back again! I know it’s been a while, but recovery is long and hard. My goal is to start putting out episodes, even if they are small, every two weeks or so at least, and eventually get back to weekly podcasts. So I am especially thankful that you are accompanying me on that journey. I’ll try to stay as relevant and current as ever.
But THIS is a special occasion! Welcome to The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival 2023! The theme of The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival is “Artificial Intelligence: Applications and Trajectories” and it takes place August 28-31.This is the 4th AnnualCarnival, and we hope to grow our list of participants and listenership going forward. The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival has proven to be a successful annual event, and we hope it continues to be. The Big Rhetorical Podcast, the host of the entire event, will feature a keynote interview for the podcast carnival. This episode will be released August 31. The keynote speaker for the Carnival is Dr. Isabel Pedersen, Professor of Communication Studies at Toronto Ontario Tech University and Founding Director of the Digital Life Institute.
Artificial intelligence is on everybody’s mind right now. I have an ex-student who is all over social media extolling its virtues as a new and exciting tool in the field of medicine. You can’t go anywhere online without seeing one of those Buzzfeed AI image lists – like here’s what AI thinks the average person from all 50 states looks like. And in my corner of the world, we’re all freaking out a bit about what to do about AI in the classroom.
Now, there is some debate, here. Professors, as it should not surprise you, are not a monolith. And the responses to AI range from “How do I keep it out of my classroom and catch people who use it?” to “How do I teach my students to use it responsibly and ethically?” As for me, I have a line in my syllabus, that use of AI, unless specifically instructed, will be viewed as plagiarism. That may seem a bit draconian to some of my colleagues, especially in the comp field, but I have reasons for wanting my students to avoid using AI as much as possible.
The thing is, AI is coming for us. We can’t turn back the tide. The revolution is already going on, and we can’t do anything about it. The law can’t keep up, societal norms can’t keep up – technology is moving at a pace that we honestly can’t comprehend. The difference that AI is going to make to us as a civilization is monumental, but also unknowable. This is it. This is a turning point.
And when I say AI is coming for us, I truly mean that. We are all about to be automated into oblivion. Baudrillard couldn’t have seen this coming, but DAMN, was he right about the hyperreal. I’ve seen estimates that in the coming years AI will replace 60-80%d of our jobs. This leaves me with two realities to contend with:
- If you want to work, you have to differentiate yourself from AI.
I have been telling my students for a long time that if you come to college expecting to learn some skills to get you a job, you are setting yourself up for irrelevance. That is never more true than now. The hard skills you learn in any setting will be outdated in a matter of years, if not months. College is not on the job training. You have to be ready to be continually learning new skills if you want to be competitive in the workplace today.
So what is college for?
If you’re doing it right, college is where you expand your humanity.
If you spend all of your college years feeding prompts into AI and spitting out automated work to get by, congratulations – you’re pretty much useless.
If you want to be noticeable, or even valuable in the workforce today, you have to be distinguishable from a machine. Because here’s the thing – ANYBODY can feed questions or prompts into AI. That takes no real effort or skill.
So if you want to show that you bring something to the table that is different or helpful or insightful in some way, you have to show that you are uniquely human.
AI can’t do everything. It’s honestly not a whole lot better than Google on ‘roids. It takes what information is out there and copies it. That’s why we see problems cropping up with AI being really racist and sexist – because it is working with racist and sexist information.
So what can you do?
You can add creativity. Insight. You can put things together in a way that AI can’t. If you’re working for a middling company that just produces content, they may not be looking for that. The truth is, jobs in PR and advertising are probably in danger. But that’s so short-sighted. Because when something different comes along, you need a human mind to approach it creatively and authentically.
That’s why I don’t want AI work in my classroom unless it is part of the assignment. I know they can feed a prompt into the computer. I am confident they can do that. But what I want them to develop is their humanity. Their creativity. Their ability to take information and synthesize or apply it in new ways. I want them to learn how to make themselves irreplaceable.
And this is sort of a strange nexus of thought for me. I have always tried to resist the capitalist leanings of higher ed. I have long fought against the notion that education exists to make efficient workers. I don’t think my job is to make cogs in the machine.
But AI presents me with a strange conundrum. A paradox, almost.
By resisting that tendency of education to create carbon copy workers, I am making more valuable employees.
By focusing on human nature and the things that Vico stressed so long ago, I am actually creating helpful workers.
I don’t know how I feel about this. But in some ways, it is a convergence that I don’t know if we have really recognized yet.
We have spent DECADES devaluing the humanities and the liberal arts. The fine arts are constantly on the chopping block. Philosophy departments are being cut left and right. I mean, just look at what WVU is doing. We are in a great culling of education.
But it’s so dumb!
We are doing the exact opposite of what we SHOULD be doing.
Technology is going to be able to do a lot of the analysis, and even the skills part, of a lot of those “hard skills” or “hard science” jobs. Now, I don’t mean to say people aren’t valuable in those positions. On the contrary. What I AM saying is what is going to make a doctor or a chemist a good scientist is their creativity and their ability to recognize not just patterns, but aberrance. And then having the insight to make the intuitive leaps to explain them.
We should be expanding those programs and disciplines that focus on our human-ness. We should be emphasizing philosophy, art, and literature, because those are things that AI cannot do well and so those are things that we can bring to the table.
This is what I mean by the revolution.
Higher ed is fighting the same fight it has been for forty years. And we are going to lose because we haven’t acknowledged how drastically things have changed.
This is why it’s so odd for me to think in terms of how to make solid workers – I’ve never seen that as my job. I’ve always seen myself as somebody who helps to make thoughtful citizens and people. But it is looking like that is exactly what the workforce is going to need in the coming years.
Look at me, I’ve become a good capitalist. I guess. I don’t know.
- The second reality, and the one that seems far-fetched to us now, but I honestly think we’re going to have to contend with in the coming decade, is that work will become unnecessary.
Just think about it. All those jobs. Automated. So many people watching their livelihoods being swept up in a technological revolution.
And it’s an imbalanced tide, as well. Blue collar jobs won’t be AS affected by AI as middle class, white collar jobs. Because without machines, AI can’t do labor. That’s not to say we won’t provide the machines, eventually. But for now, we still need people to do physical work. But those middle jobs – the jobs held by people who graduate from small state schools or regional colleges – those will be swallowed up by AI. Content producers, managers, people who work in finance – those are all in danger of being swept up in the AI tidal wave that is coming.
And this puts us in a really weird situation. Marx said the workers would eventually rise up against the capitalists in revolution. But the laborers are safer from elimination than the middle class. While the capitalists remain untouchable as always. Marx just couldn’t have seen this coming.
So what are we going to do?
If estimates are right, and over 50% of jobs will be automated in the next few years, that’s a lot of people who will lose their jobs.
We are seeing the beginning rumblings of this with the writer’s strike. Yes, the main thrust of all of this is that writers and actors aren’t being paid for their work that is being streamed. But there is also the concern that writers could be replaced with AI. Now, that is just indicative of how little the capitalist class respects those who support their weight. AI could write a sitcom. No problem. But it would just be a study in genre. It would be all the hallmarks of any sitcom combined into one show. In short, it would be completely derivative. But the owners don’t think we will mind. They expect us to just be happy with whatever 2 ½ Men.2 they throw at us because apparently we don’t know any better.
That means there are two competing factors, here: soon there will be no work, and there is some work that really only people can do well.
If there is no work, what are we going to do? Honestly, it’s like I said – there will be no NEED to work because AI will be able to do so much of it. So what do we do with all of the people who are left twiddling their thumbs?
The honest truth is, we are going to have to re-think capitalism.
We are obsessed with the notion that to be valuable you must work. To the point the meaningless jobs are proliferate throughout the economy. There are thousands of people who do pointless jobs, and get paid for them, just for the sake of people working. But it’s about to become very clear that a lot of work is just theater.
If we don’t reassess how we think about work we are looking at a crisis of our own making.
Most people don’t have to work to make the world run. The problem isn’t that we need all these people working, the problems is that these people need the money they get for working. Because their work provides them with housing, medical care, transportation, etc. But the work itself doesn’t provide anything useful.
So why don’t we cut out the middle man?
We are going to have to seriously consider a UBI sometime in the very near future once a large portion of the population loses their jobs to AI. Because the necessary work will be done by a computer. But that doesn’t mean the people are unnecessary.
We are going to have to completely re-think our economy. We can’t leave people just hanging out to dry, though. There are two problems with that: the first is the obvious moral one. We can just let a large portion of the population starve when we could so easily address the problem. The second is an economic problem – the economy will crash if it loses that many consumers that quickly.
We are going to have to find a way to pay people whose work is deemed replaceable by AI.
Which actually brings me to another part of this – what will people do if they are not doing their jobs?
Well, I don’t know. But I have a very optimistic proposal.
Let them do what they want.
If half the population doesn’t need to work, and they are getting a stipend, and the other half is working and getting paid well, then those who aren’t working will have time to do things that make them happy. Like write. Or paint. Or learn a new language. Or, hell, play video games.
But what I’m saying is – maybe it doesn’t have to be work.
Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to come up with work for everybody to do, but to finally fashion an economy that values people. So if somebody wants to be paid handsomely for skills only they can bring to the party, they can absolutely do that. If somebody wants to devote their lives to the arts, there is opportunity to do that. If somebody wants to take care of their family, their work will be valued. And, yeah, if somebody wants to sit around all day and browse the internet, so what?
I recognize some people will think we’re getting into Brave New World kind of territory, here. But that’s the opposite of what I’m talking about. Huxley’s dystopia warned us about a society that was obsessed with consumerism, the pleasure principle, and conformity. It doesn’t have to be that way. If people are given the opportunity to pursue the lives they want as opposed to laboring in excess of 40 hours a week, we don’t know what they’ll do. But it’s not like people will be any MORE consumeristic than they are now. We kind of have that on lock. And some people, if left to their own devices, will work their bodies or their minds in ways the 9-5 just wouldn’t allow them to.
People could actually write that novel or learn to play that instrument they’ve always wanted to. What I’m saying is, if we free people from the shackles of work, they will be more inclined to turn to the kinds of activities that only people can do.
And that runs in all directions.
We might have more sculptors. But we might also have more carpenters.
And ALL of this is going to radically change the classroom.
If the end goal of an education isn’t necessarily to get a middle-class job, then what is higher ed for?
Well, now we return to where I started.
School is a place to explore ideas. To grow as a person. To understand your job as a citizen. Elite schools across the country for generations have positions themselves, and made part of their missions, as forces in the world for good. What if ALL education was for personal and social well-being?
Is this all idealistic and pie in the sky? Yes. Obviously.
But, friends, we are at a turning point.
AI is about the revolutionize education, the economy, and labor. And it is happening at a time when schools at all levels are under attack.
We have all seen what is going on at WVU. And we know the disaster that is Florida. This is a CRUCIAL time. The Right is crushing the very things that we need to be focusing on in education right now. Right as AI is coming in to replace anybody who can’t think, the conservatives are attacking the people and classes who encourage you to think.
This is SERIOUS.
We need to focus on our humanity to make us irreplaceable. But they are forces out there who are actively trying to strip us of that very thing.
And that’s no small thing. It leaves us dumb. It leaves us without empathy. It leaves us just fodder for the machines.
The economy is going to have to change because of the AI revolution. And education can usher in that change, or be a stumbling block.
If we want the former we are going to have to get administrators and politicians to listen to reason, and humanity, instead of fear and the current bottom line. We can’t be short-sighted, here. We’ve got a generation depending on us.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.