Tomorrow I am going to be on a panel called the Newark Leadership Roundtable, talking about the solution to the dire economic situation in inner cities in general, and in Newark in particular.
I have lots of thoughts and I am not sure with such a large and distinguished panel that I will have an opportunity to say everything I think, so I figured, both to prepare for the panel and to air my ideas out more fully I'd blog them here.
The situation in inner cities is a complex one and there are a variety of factors that drive the current context. But the truth is I don’t think any of the issues that are driving the inhospitable economic environment are local. Inner cities in general, and Newark in particular may have specific local problems but the primary issues are national if not global.
Broadly speaking, the problem, and the solution to the problem is technology. Back in 2009 I wrote a piece called “The problem with the economy: you aren’t needed anymore”. The basic thesis of that piece was that technology is reducing the number of people required to provide our planets most basic of needs. Be it energy production, food, transportation, retailing, communications, or a myriad of other industries, software is, at an astonishing pace, allowing us to operate at greater and greater levels of efficiency. In this context greater efficiency means employing fewer people.
This means that fewer and fewer people can control larger and larger chunks of the economy. This is driving a massive consolidation of economic power and wealth.
My piece ran in Business Insider where it was roundly criticized the editor-in-chief Henry Blodget, and many other commenters. But since that time others have written similar pieces. For example Douglass Rushkoff wrote a piece in cnn.com called "Are Jobs Obsolete". And Mark Andreessen, famed investor, and one of the creators of the first commercial web browser, recently wrote an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal called “Why Software is Eating The World”, where he explains that essentially every business category is being transformed into a software company.
The implications of this are profound because when software does things, then people are not doing those things. As we become a planet where all of us are not needed to feed and clothe and shelter each other, we become a planet where wealth is much less evenly distributed. We become a planet where certain people have critical contributions to make and some just don’t. And so the question becomes how do we create a politically palatable framework for caring for those people who are just not needed.
This is an important question because it is essentially where we are now. There is massive unemployment in america, well north of 20%, and much higher in minority communities. The unemployed are not, for the most part, dying of starvation. They are just living very poor unhealthy unhappy lives. The employed majority’s survival is not dependent on the unemployed minority. Many employed folk consider the unemployed lazy and in circumstances of their own making.
The policical right considers this economic underclass useless and politically expendable. And that may be good cynical 2012 politics. But it will not be good politics as the number of unemployed grows and wealth continues to consolidate. Technology guarantees that the trend will continue. In fact technology *demands* that the trend continues. It will likely not be a straight line curve, we will have ups and downs in employment and GDP. But the bottom line is existing economic theory does not apply to a world that has infinite efficiency, and that is where we are headed.
So this is the big picture problem. It is not a local problem. It is not a problem for Newark, or Paterson, or Bedford Stuyvesant, or Harlem. It is a problem for the planet. We can’t do much to change the trajectory of the planet, but we must understand the trends if we are going to survive them.
The first thing to understand is that it is critical that a broader spectrum of society become creators of technology instead of consumers of it. My wife is a professor at Montclair State University where she teaches teachers in the school of Education, and researches educational strategies and social justice issues. And she tells me that elementary school curriculums, to the extent that they include technology, are focused on how to integrate it into the learning experience. For example, a big part of the discussion is about how we use facebook, or blogs, or twitter in the classroom. This is all good, but its like teaching kids to be patients rather than doctors. We are teaching consumption rather than production.
The point is that in order to have any economic self sufficiency, poor disenfranchised communities, must create their own opportunities, their own businesses, their own centers of power. And a big part of this must come from learning how to create software because software already drives most economic activity and it will ultimately drive almost all of it.
And so my fundamental point is that all kids, but particularly inner city minority kids that may not have significant opportunities, can learn to create those opportunities by learning to program. Creating software in twenty years will be like reading is today. We must engage. There is no reason that third grade kids are not learning the basics of programming. More importantly, learning how to program effects learning and reasoning in every other academic pursuit. Our educational system today is primarily focused on how much knowledge we can stuff in a kid’s head when what kids really need is to learn how to think, how to reason, how to gather information and how to develop answers, arguments, and strategy.
I believe every single school day, starting in third grade and going through at least tenth grade, that every student should have a period dedicated to programming. It is critical that we start this young before the educational system succeeds in teaching our kids that they are dumb and can't learn which is what it does today. And I am confident that programming is as learnable at an early age as is basic math or reading.
I realize that given that there are so few teachers that know how to program that there would be insecurity in schools giving students skills that most of their teachers don’t have. I also realize there are no curriculums focused on this. But this is why we must start now. There is nothing more important. Because as economic power is consolidated amongst those that control the software, not following this course will cement the groups that are currently at the bottom of the socio-economic structure into that position permanently.
To be clear, teaching poor kids in inner cities to program will not fix the bigger picture problem, but it can at least more fairly and more broadly distributed the world's wealth.