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Education in the Digital Age
How We Get There
By Nadav Zeimer Posted in Non-fiction 21 min read
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Chapter 18 | The Value of Choice

The difference between theory and practice tends to be very small in theory, but in practice it is very large indeed.
— Anonymous

We explored the field of finance where greed drives policy because elements of finance give us a first peek into changes that are coming to the rest of society. Indeed, the idea that greed and self-interest drive progress has been an assumption underlying much of this book. In other words, an initiative that fails to align with these base motivations was assumed to be prone to failure. But how can this view inform education policy? Isn’t the underlying profit motive a cynical approach to a discussion of the future of education? Is the purpose of education necessarily to prepare students for economic participation? Let’s step back a moment and take a broader view.

Self-interest is at the heart of democracy. Voters are assumed to vote based on their own interests. When voters select leaders that act contrary to their own well-being, democracy breaks down. Even the founding fathers understood that profit motives would threaten the integrity of a democratic state through corruption.ii They also recognized the role of education to maintain a citizenry who thinks critically to protect their interests.

Despite my conviction that greed and self-interest are fundamental forces to be reckoned with, I am driven by a parallel conviction that human beings are genetically programmed to be good. Our brains have evolved to produce psychochemical rewards for taking care of each other. Just as a wolf has evolved to operate in a pack, the human is a social creature with a keen ability to empathize with the plight of our kin. We feel disheartened when our society doesn’t value our contribution, and we are elated when it does. We feel our power and celebrate our independence each time our deeply held virtues overcome extrinsic circumstantial pressures. We get a boost when we help an old lady across the street or make a loved one laugh, and we are torn up psychologically when we must create elaborate rationalizations to justify actions which we know to be destructive. Our jobs are so often a source of stress because they require us to leave so much of our humanity at the door.

And yet, human beings do terrible things, frequently, maybe even more often than we do good things. This is certainly true the bigger the social context, and in this globally connected world our social context is often quite extensive. How we act with close friends and family is usually better than how we act in an anonymous public space like Twitter; how the news portrays humanity is likely worse than how most human beings live their private lives; how insulated small-town communities and other tribes once took care of each other is a far cry from how mainstream America behaves today.

The core issue at the heart of this conflict between our inherent drive to do good and our frequent actions to the contrary is best characterized by the concept of a multi-polar trap, also known as the tragedy of the commons. This is an explanation of how good people tend to do bad things.

The ideas below were very much influenced by contemporary philosophers, particularly Daniel Schmachtenberger. Many of the examples are his as are the overarching ideas presented.

Daniel’s explanation of multi-polar traps highlights the perverse incentives that arise when we measure the world in terms of one isolated metric like profits: nature is worth more dead than alive in the short term, and our job performance is always measured in the short term. We can find situations where war is good for GDP, where addiction (to drugs, sugar, social media, shopping) is good for GDP, and where sick people are good for GDP more than people who maintain excellent health.

A factory pollutes the local water with industrial waste rather than spending money to handle it responsibly. They make a lot of money this way, gaining an economic advantage by externalizing the cost of their waste for others to shoulder. Someone else invents water filters and bottled water to deal with the poisoned water and makes even more money from this remediation. GDP goes up and jobs are created as a result. When we measure economic prosperity using short-term instruments like quarterly profit reports, GPD, or jobs numbers, these activities seem justifiable, if distasteful. We are knowingly trading short-term individual advantage for a degraded long-term collective potential.

Every agent, doing what is rationally their best choice in the short term, creates the worst possible outcomes for everyone in the long term. This is the multi-polar trap. It is, at the core, a failure of coordination. That is, if I knew for sure that no one else would be allowed to dump waste into the water, I would refrain from doing it myself. But all businesses must coordinate together to prohibit this behavior.

That is the role of government—to impose regulations that coordinate the individual parties for the benefit of society. The only problem is that we also encounter perverse political incentives. Power dynamics lead one agent to get ahead at the expense of the others causing everyone to ratchet up their plausibly deniable foul play. If regulation is put in place to stop the dumping of chemicals into drinking water, the regulator becomes the target for capture. If it’s up to the voters to decide, large marketing budgets are used to twist the narrative, confusing voters.

The moment we define the rules to prevent corruption, lawyers help their clients violate the spirit of the law while minimally adhering to its letter. There is always a way to hide culpability if one has the resources to do so. In other words, there will never be a perfect social system. No one is maliciously doing the bad thing from their own perspective. Everyone is simply racing to gain short-term advantage because their economic success demands it.

But if you think the influence of money is the core issue, think again. Money simply allows us to take a product or service and assign it a value to make it exchangeable. Because of this universal exchange, money is the pervasive (lowest common denominator) measure of success, translatable to votes, power, influence, time, physical goods, and every kind of transactional exchange possible.

Consider this example: a scientist identifies a plant that has a recognized medicinal benefit. She uses scientific methods to extract just the active ingredient. She is paying attention to only one thing: the unitary health benefit attributed to that plant. She is measuring that one metric and ignoring everything else. As a result, she creates a drug with potency in that one measure, but which also has side effects that were not present when the plant was consumed in its organic, unprocessed form. She may soon be making more drugs to deal with the side effects of her first creation. Any time we limit our evaluation criteria we cause externalities by the very act of limiting the scope of our measurements which causes us to ignore other measurements. The known unknown, not to mention the unknown unknowns that are relevant to health are more important than we tend account for. Money is the most common metric used to define progress, but the same issue of unintended consequences rears its ugly head no matter what narrow measure we use to track our actions in the world.

But if you think the influence of money is the core issue, think again. Money simply allows us to take a product or service and assign it a value to make it exchangeable. Because of this universal exchange, money is the pervasive (lowest common denominator) measure of success, translatable to votes, power, influence, time, physical goods, and every kind of transactional exchange possible.

Consider this example: a scientist identifies a plant that has a recognized medicinal benefit. She uses scientific methods to extract just the active ingredient. She is paying attention to only one thing: the unitary health benefit attributed to that plant. She is measuring that one metric and ignoring everything else. As a result, she creates a drug with potency in that one measure, but which also has side effects that were not present when the plant was consumed in its organic, unprocessed form. She may soon be making more drugs to deal with the side effects of her first creation. Any time we limit our evaluation criteria we cause externalities by the very act of limiting the scope of our measurements which causes us to ignore other measurements. The known unknown, not to mention the unknown unknowns that are relevant to health are more important than we tend account for. Money is the most common metric used to define progress, but the same issue of unintended consequences rears its ugly head no matter what narrow measure we use to track our actions in the world.

If that scientist happens to be working for a company that measures success strictly in terms of financial gain, she becomes even more susceptible to incomplete thinking. A company producing health products would ideally focus on health as a success metric rather than wealth. Money can, in this way, be a potent catalyst for harm by distilling measurement to a lowest common denominator. It is the highly intelligent and well-educated practitioners (doctors, lawyers, engineers, policy wonks) who tend to ignore the fact that they are terrible at safety analysis at second, third, fourth order effects and the prediction of long-term unintended consequence. Policy makers may implement policies with the best of intentions, only to have them backfire in meaningful ways because their model was insufficiently complex. Instead of receiving the feedback and correcting the policy, the normal tendency is to blame the victims of their misguided efforts for causing the failure.

Even if we replaced GDP with a highly sophisticated weighting function that accounts for disparity of incomes and CO2 levels and the microbiome of the soil and happiness indicators and health metrics, we will always unintentionally overlook other important metrics, not to mention the critical factors that cannot be quantified at all. There is no way to design a perfect system. As Isaac Asimov explained it, research is the ever righting of wrongs rather than any conclusion as to what is objectively right. The only way available to us is to have imperfect systems that we plan to continually adjust for improvement.

How do we use metrics without becoming subordinate to their influence? Asked another way, how do we remove the perverse incentives from a system so that no one has an incentive to do that which is damaging in the long term for all of us? How do we make the system of incentives predispose participants to make the most omni-considerate positive choices, not only for them but for all of humanity, in the near term and long term? We can boil this whole conundrum down to a single word: choice.

Money is nothing more than concentrated choice-making. A dollar is a fungible, singular, maximally reduced unit of value. That is, it is a concentrated expression of choice that can be used across contexts. Science can tell us what is, but it cannot guide us to what ought to be. Metrics are necessary to track progress toward a goal, but human choice must set the goal in the first place.

From the context of choice, how do we remove negative choice and predispose everyone’s choice in a positive way? We can see that such a system is authoritarian in nature. If there is choice, there is the possibility of people making choices that are intended to benefit the whole but misguided or intentionally damaging for individual benefit. If we care about democracy in terms of our freedom to make individual choices, we cannot design a social system that is predisposed to a certain limited set of “good choices.” Only a dictator can do that.

The issue then becomes one of mitigating asymmetric manipulation tools that seek to control people’s choices. If the attention of the voting public can be captured and demand can be manufactured, there is no possibility for crowd intelligence on the demand side, and power concentrates on the supply side. As power concentrates with the mass manipulation of choice, we find radical institutional decay. Predation and extraction become increasingly incentivized more than meaningful production of the things that matter to individual human beings.

The story that we are sold is that markets are fair; democratic governments govern well; representatives represent the people; courts create justice; schools teach people how to think; news informs you about what is going on in the world; doctors make you healthy; police keep you safe; and the military exists for purposes of defense. The story has elements of truth, but we can see how inside those institutions ambitious people figure out how to degrade the institutions in ways that are beneficial for their own advancement.

If this degradation proceeds unchecked, coordination failures produce a democracy in name but an oligarchy in practice. Those with power concentrate their power. Representatives increasingly represent financial interests and not the best interests of the people that allegedly put them in office; government doesn’t design regulations that protect the good of the whole but instead serve the interests of those funding their next election bid.

The few who protest this concentration of power are powerless because they choose not to take advantage of the perverse incentives that would allow them to have power in the first place. If someone with existing power chooses to protest the very power structure that supports their elevated position, they are labeled as anti-American by influential colleagues who have clawed their way to their positions of influence. A hidden oligarchy can be much more menacing to human freedom than outright dictatorship because it gives a false appearance of choice where none exists.

China’s leader can overcome multi-polar traps by simple decree. As a result, China is investing in their own infrastructure and building high-speed rail and high-tech shipping ports all over the world while America hasn’t been able to invest in our own major infrastructure in decades. Even less authoritarian socialist countries are outperforming the USA in terms of innovation as previously cited is the case with Sweden.

In fact, instead of investing in the interest of economic activity at large with upgrades to public utilities and investments in innovation, the United States has been eroding the foundation of the economy for short-term gain. The Apollo Space Program initiated in 1951, the formation of an interstate highway system starting in 1954, or the creation of DARPA in 1958 have been gradually replaced since 1971 with projects like the bloated F-35 that cost over $1 trillion without serving any useful purpose,v the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which cost billions, and were soon decommissioned, some only six years after production,vi and catastrophic projects such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars which have cost multiple trillions of dollars.

As we already saw, 1968 marked the start of financial deregulation in the United States. Soft money, untethered to the limits of a hard asset like gold, led to a bloated financial sector, which has taken hold of the economy to make money from money rather than from offering a quality product or service. This is accomplished with “pump and dump” schemes which extract short-term wealth for corporations and destroy long-term viability in the process. The financial services sector, the keystone of this paradigm, has ballooned to one fifth of national GDP—an economy of Enron-style inflated balance sheets designed to concentrate wealth at the top, leaving the foundation of the economy without substance.

This comparison between the United States and China is not meant to advocate for authoritarian rule or to argue that it is more effective. Any kind of authoritarian regime, any system that eliminates individual choice, is antithetical to the very meaning of existence for human beings. If you try to define meaningfulness of existence as a human being, you won’t be able to find any definition that doesn’t link the concept of meaningfulness to the concept of choice. If we design a system that compels people’s choice toward a particular outcome, their choice is no longer choice but the result of social engineering. My point is simply that an openly authoritarian regime appears to be more productive than a democracy in name only.

So where does this leave us? We end up back at the foundation of the digital economy: human attention. Attention is at the heart of choice: controlling other people’s attention for your benefit is tantamount to putting their choice-making under your control.

The desire to control other people’s attention for personal benefit, the benefit of the political party, or the corporation has always been at the heart of marketing and propaganda. With the advent of digital technology, we have weaponized psychology to capture attention. This micro-manipulation of individual attention threatens to control our choices in ways that were not possible with mass marketing alone. Given that the scale of human impact has reached a planetary scale, centralized control by corporations like Facebook and Exxon Mobil that are not limited by national boundaries can lead to misguided policies that have catastrophic global outcomes.

It is not government capture that we must be concerned with if we care about freedom. The media or political lobbyists are symptomatic, not the root of the issue. It is the capture of individual attention that threatens democracy. Capturing the attention of individuals and thus manipulating their choices is the heart of the problem.

Citizens who are critical thinkers are inoculated against mass media manipulation and serve as a buffer to government capture at the ballot box. There is no answer to a free society beyond educating humans to be lifelong learners. Every other proposition can be gamed. The failures in American society can and should be traced directly to the lack of critical thinking in our public school classrooms.

We do not need a highly intelligent voting base or any unattainable level of sophistication. Our young people must, at a basic level, learn to differentiate human virtue from the more common human endeavor of virtue signaling. The former is something intrinsic that cannot be expressed in any measurable or exchangeable way.

Virtue represents the core of understanding human choice. A virtue is something one chooses over dollars or likes or tweets or elections. Without a sense of virtue, we cannot be good stewards of choice. Money and societal pressures might inform our decision-making process, but our intrinsic virtues complement these inputs to guide our choices as sovereign individuals.

Virtue signaling, by contrast, uses the expression of a purported virtue to gain extrinsic advantage. When it comes down to sacrificing some material advantage in favor of honoring our virtue, and we choose the former with some rationalization, we are virtue signaling.

Virtue signaling can easily be confused for virtue. This confusion is at the heart of human manipulation: feigning virtue is a sure way to get fellow humans to hand over money or votes or influence or simple attention since it is our virtuous nature that values this above extrinsic material advantage.

The difference between an authentic virtue and a false signal can only be determined at a moment of choice. Otherwise the two sound the same in conversation, look the same in corporate advertising, and lead to similar political platforms. Without a watchful eye to determine whether the words spoken align with the actions taken, we are susceptible to asymmetric advertising that signals virtue to compel us to make choices that contradict our best interests.

Sadly, those who sell a narrative of future freedom with our next purchase or vote do not experience this freedom themselves. We have a strong tendency to compare ourselves to those who have what we don’t rather than to celebrate our achievement compared to those who have less.vii Because of this, even our alleged corporate overlords experience being under the thumb of the next biggest oligarch.

The years of life represented by our time in school are our most formative experiences. This is a time when society invests in us before asking us to generate economic value. Metrics like money are outside of the domain of our concern during this period more than at any other time in our lives. This is a time to explore the values handed down to us from our elders, a time to learn how to manage our attention in service of our intentions. This is a time to discover work ethic, human connection, creative self-expression, and the wisdom of the heart and the body.

The opportunity of education is not to prepare workers for industry as much as to prepare citizens for a free democratic society. In the Industrial Age, high schools focused on preparing workers for the jobs loop rather than empowering them as sovereign voters. It was seen to be an either/or choice where independent thought ran contrary to the compliance required for mass production. In a digital age, the lines between democracy and capitalism are blurred as creators gain status by accumulating followers. As a result, schools that focus on economic outcomes in a digital context will find themselves developing the same skills required for a vibrant democracy.

Digitally relevant schools will allow students to discover how investments of the resources that are their birthright—energy and time and attitude—can produce returns that run deeper than the returns gained from financial advantage alone.

Without meaningful high school experiences that deepen our values and sharpen our critical thought, the few with money can use that money to accumulate more of the same, and democracy and individual freedom erode. As a result, even our best intentions backfire such as when money makes us poor, medicine makes us sick, schools make us dumb, police put us at risk, social media makes us lonely, foodstuffs make us malnourished, and so on.

Greed and self-interest are powerful forces, indeed. We must be keenly aware of their presence. We must train our young people to make choices in their own self-interest. High school is an opportunity to teach them that when each of us allows others to capture our choices for their own advantage, selling us a narrative of the virtues they claim to represent, everyone falls into the multi-polar trap spiral.

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