Saturday, September 29, 2012

Appropriate use of "free time"

I am a big fan of the expression "Race against the machines". I really do think that is where the job market is these days. However, we are still in the early parts of the exponential explosion. For that reason, many people don't see this as a race against the machines. Instead, it is more of a race against other humans. That isn't simply perception, it is also largely reality. People can race against the machines for a while, but that isn't a race you can really win. The machines improve exponentially. By the time you realize you need to start running, there isn't much time left before you will be completely left in the dust. Instead, humans are racing one another for those positions that the machines can't yet do. They are also racing to positions that are currently machine free in the situations where their previous knowledge/capability falls behind in another area.

One of the other things that I have been watching a fair bit recently is the free availability of educational resources online. Just a few years ago, there really weren't all that many options when it came to learning most topics. You could buy a book or spend a lot of money looking for someone to teach you using traditional educational approaches. Some resources were available online, but they were expensive. Just between Khan Academy and the MOOC (Massive, Open, Online Course) sites (Coursera, Udacity, and edX), there is now a wealth of educational material present at a variety of levels.

So what does this have to do with free time? Well, if you spend all of your free time doing activities that don't lead to self-improvement, you are losing the race against other humans and the machines. I feel like the US society has a mentality that chases entertainment and leisure. There is no doubt that people need to have both entertainment and leisure in order to maintain good mental balance, but I worry that most of the entertainment and leisure that people strive for does nothing to improve them and that we have made entertainment the ultimate goal of our life quests. If you want to have any chance of not losing the race, you need to strive to improve yourself. More broadly, I think that we need to work on being a society that seeks for self-improvement, both physically and mentally instead of one that seeks entertainment. I mentioned some mental self-improvement options above. On the physical side, Fitocracy is one of many tools you can use to help motivate you to do exercise and in the end the goal is to turn self-improvement into something more akin to entertainment.

So who should be doing this? I would argue everyone. In my first blog post looking at the course I am taking at Coursera, I argued that MOOCs are great for continuing education for educators and many others. Students who want to go into more depth in a field or who find that they lack certain background in something should definitely consider turning to either MOOCs or resources like Khan academy.

These example groups skirt around the reality of the modern US and the fact there there is a large population of people who are currently losing the race and who really need to focus on self-improvement. That is the population of unemployed and underemployed. As it stands, the labor force in the US is below 50% of the population and dropping. That puts it back in the range it was in during the 1980s when many women still hadn't moved into the workforce.

In most segments of the economy, this means that there is very stiff competition for what positions there are available. That in turn means employers can be selective and only take the top people. If you aren't one of the top people right now, there is only one way to get there, that is through self-improvement. In the past this might have been some type of cruel catch-22 because self-improvement always came at a monetary cost, whether it was tuition for school or just the price of books you might buy. Today, those barriers are gone. Anyone can sign up for a MOOC for free and listen to lectures from some of the worlds greatest minds. If they start going over your head at some point during the semester, that's fine, you aren't contractually bound to go through the whole course and you lose nothing if you stop at the point where it becomes too difficult. Now the only cost is the cost of the time you take in doing these things.

Unfortunately, what I think is happening more often in our society is that instead of going for the challenge of self-improvement, people go for the mindless joy of Facebook games (and other similar substitutes). I can understand the temptation. I got sucked into a mindless FB game once and I have to admit that I am occasionally tempted to do such things when I feel overwhelmed. (The only reason I don't is because playing them wouldn't make me any less overwhelmed. In fact, while I was playing odds are good that more stuff would have gotten piled on top of me.) The thing is that FB games, pretty much uniformly, do not improve you or get you ahead in the race. As a result, the time that a person spends playing them causes that person to fall further behind those he/she is racing against.

Now let's be honest, I do believe that automation is causing technological unemployment, and in the long term, the nature of jobs and their role in our society needs to fundamentally change. The cynical side of me says that in the future we might actually want a large fraction of the population playing mindless FB games so that they stay happy and don't riot. However, we aren't to that point yet and we still live in a world where people need to work if they want to live a decent life. As such, everyone should be doing as much as they can to improve themselves to move ahead in the race. Everyone should take advantage of the new opportunities for education and other forms of self-improvement. They should do so first with the goal of making their own lives better. People that I know who are in the position of hiring others love seeing self-motivation and self-improvement. They will ask you in an interview what you have been doing with your down time, and if the answer isn't something they see as useful it is a major black mark on your application. However, I think there is a second reason.

When I look forward toward a world where most people don't need to work for things to run smoothly to run, I see a world where we need people to be motivated by different things. If everyone seeks mindless entertainment and leisure, I don't think think society will work well. It either falls apart completely, or we get a Wall-E type of scenario. However, if we can change our societal norms to become a society that strives for self-improvement, I think that a world where we don't need jobs works very well. People in such a society will continue to work to educate themselves. They will put effort into creative endeavors. Inevitably, they should still enjoy the occasional period of rest or activities that are purely for entertainment and leisure, but we need those activities to be what people do occasionally to recharge and to gain motivation for the next step in their life path, not to be the ultimate goal that people work towards.