Flat, Spiky, or Merely Portending the AI Apocalypse?

When I first read The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman, I was living in an idyllic bubble seemingly impervious to the forces of global change: Seven Ranges Scout Reservation, where I was serving as Camp Director in the summer of 2006. And yet, despite its location on the outskirts of Appalachia in East Central Ohio, if I looked closely I could see world-flattening forces even at my beloved 900-acre retreat: Satellite internet service, (spotty) cell phone reception, online ordering of program supplies, and more had all come to the reservation in just a few years’ time, connecting us to civilization in ways we hadn’t experienced when some of us were on staff in the 1990s or even the early 2000s.

Despite these very visible changes at “7R”, I was also keenly aware that the rest of the world was moving on at a much faster pace. Thus, I see no reason why Friedman’s and Florida’s analyses should be mutually exclusive. The world is flat. The world is also spiky. Are flattening forces allowing more access to more people, but simultaneously concentrating wealth in ways not seen since the days of Rockefeller and Morgan?

I first used Amazon.com in 1999. A few years later, I joined Amazon Prime. Today, Prime is “the least-exclusive” membership in America, with approximately half of U.S. households using the service. With free one-day delivery now becoming the Prime norm, that’s a continuation of the flatness observed by Friedman when he spoke of Wal-Mart’s “just in time” supply chain, keeping most of its inventory not in stores, but on trucks in transit to its stores. One-day delivery and other services can be dependent on the consumer’s geographic location, however, and the intense competition and borderline ludicrous incentives to become home to Amazon’s “HQ2” or second world headquarters calls into question whether even the spiky winners of that competition are really winning in the end.

Another, more personal example: With a preprofessional background in speech and theater, I delved into voice acting several years ago to stay in touch with my creative muse and learn how to run a small business. Flattening forces made this possible. The Friedman-esque convergence of hardware, software, the internet, and instant access to a worldwide market made it possible for me to set up a professional home studio with a decent “sound chain” (to keep it simple - microphone, audio interface, computer) and to compete for gigs immediately. In just a short time, I had completed voiceovers for clients from my local community to Egypt and Australia, and just about everywhere in between. My voice coach and demo producer hails from Minnesota, coached me via Skype, and produced my demo via phone patch in a studio near Akron, Ohio. Flat world!

But the flattened, so-called “contractor,” “gig,” or “freelancer” economy in voice acting and other markets simultaneously drove down prices as it opened up access points. The line between hobbyist and professional was blurred. My assumption is that most of the voice acting business (and particularly the union work) is still being conducted in major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and that more than 90 percent of the work is being completed by five to ten percent of the actors! Spiky reality!

But is this flat/spiky world even a new phenomenon? As Walter Russell Mead pointed out last year in Foreign Affairs, Americans experienced an era of rapid economic upheaval, social and political violence, and a feckless, gridlocked political system in the decades after the Civil War. The industrial revolution flattened our world but also gave rise to brutal financial crises, severe economic inequality, and oligarchy. In this sense, both Friedman and Florida contributed pieces that identified and illuminated trends that have only accelerated over the last fifteen years, and are thus still relevant as we prepare to enter the third decade (!) of the twenty-first century.

Now, the curveball… in the midst of the technological revolution, are we on the cusp of creating super intelligent artificial intelligence (AI)? After all, when I was in high school, it only took IBM one year to figure out how to program Deep Blue to beat Garry Kasparov at chess. 20 years later, humans are no match for computers at chess, a game that can theoretically be mathematically “solved.”

Giving a machine the goal of winning at chess is fairly innocuous. Nick Bostrom is just one of many thinkers concerned with the goals with which machines are provided in the future. If we were to create super intelligent AI without factoring in ethics and a role for humanity, giving a super intelligent machine a goal of, for example, mitigating climate change could bring about a death penalty for the human race (the greatest threat Spaceship Earth has ever faced?). Life 3.0 author Max Tegmark addressed similar themes. Will AI be a friendly, helpful human companion or the overmind of a cruel, domineering authoritarian dystopia? Should be a blast to find out, right? Right?

To paraphrase fictional newsman Kent Brockman: I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords - just so long as the right people design them. Not me. I can’t even get Alexa to answer simple questions.

This is the landscape of leadership in the twenty-first century. In education, for example, we are developing new teaching/leading methods in an era that has been flattened due to the sum of all human knowledge accessed from devices that fit into our pockets (and primarily used to keep Snap streaks alive, it seems). AI is increasingly at work in the background, from “smart” features in Office applications, to analytics and feedback, to various features in our learning managements systems (LMSs).

As educational leaders, we must help those around us be comfortable living as “Endless Newbies” in the flat world, and work to connect, collaborate, and build relationships across the spikes. We must also be mindful that AI may eventually impact even the self-perpetuating culture of school, radically modifying brick-and-mortar institutions or eliminating them altogether. Facilitating access, monitoring progress, and living in concert with intelligent machines will, at the same time, humble and (hopefully) empower us as we work to empower others.