Commentary | From people to machines

How societal complexity is turning us all into robots

Today, most of us upper- and middle-class types take a university education for granted, as a necessary stepping stone to a complete life and later career. Despite attempts by government and private interests to restrict access to higher education, more and more people from all levels of income are attending university than ever before. University is becoming a necessity, but why? And a more fundamental question: Why university in the first place? Is university pushing us to become something beyond human?

The answers are not so obvious; go back only a few hundred years and the average education consisted of apprenticing for a few years under a craftsman, or learning basic farm work – while reading and writing was barred to all but the superfluously rich. But then, with the industrial revolution we saw a sudden increase in society’s complexity, and with it came an increased need for a better understanding of the world.

By the 19th century, learning how to read and write had become important, and a few years of elementary school was sufficient to give one a head start in the labour force. Even fifty years ago, a high school education was more than enough to prepare a person for their adult working life. Today, a four-year university degree is necessary, and as more and more people rush to get B.A.’s, we see an increasing proportion of the population pursuing Masters and even Ph.D’s just to land a decent job. Two-hundred years ago, you could begin working at 14 as a craftsman’s apprentice.

I believe the reason for this increased need for education is not people’s desire for knowledge, more leisure time, or increased affluence (although these are all factors) – but rather, it is the fundamental need to address the increased complexity of society. The required education one needs to function normally in any society is proportionate to that society’s complexity.

In simple societies, less complexity is required to maintain their structure; therefore few people have to be literate or learned, save a small class of elites. But as complexity increases so too does the weight of maintaining said complexity, and therefore an ever-increasing proportion of people are needed just to maintain – let alone increase – the complexity of the system.

One-hundred years ago, simply being literate allowed one to easily navigate most of life’s obstacles and understand its workings. Today, in order to be truly “literate” of the world and its workings in any successful way, a university education is required. This leads to a fundamental problem: society’s complexity continues to increase, but our human capacity for learning does not. Two-hundred years ago, one could fully integrate into society at the age of 14. Today it takes well into one’s twenties and thirties to achieve the same level of integration.

The extra 15-plus years of time puts a lot of strain on the system. It puts strain on individuals who must sacrifice almost a third of their lives until they can start “living” it. All that time spent studying is not used in being productive, which drains a lot from society – not too mention the cost! An average university undergraduate degree costs thousands of dollars, and whether it’s public or privately funded, the total cost to society is the same. Furthermore, demographically, society’s insatiable need for education requires so much of individuals that it delays when they have children, which lowers the birthrate – a trend we see in most developed countries.

The point I’m getting to is this: the high educational burden required by a complex society is pushing the limits of human learning capacity. So what happens when we can no longer sustain our intensive education system? What happens when the creators of complex society can no longer educate themselves well enough to run it?

One of two things. There will either be a collapse in complexity because of an inability to maintain it, or we will have to drastically alter our ability to retain information, learn, and adapt. Achieving this isn’t so far fetched.

If we want to maintain or increase our society’s complexity, we’re going to need to maintain or increase our ability to educate ourselves to run it. What happens when human is not enough – when we need to retain even more information? Do you want to study until you’re grey just for a job? At a certain point we are going to need to upgrade ourselves. At one point progress will outstrip our own ability to adapt to it. At this point we will have to choose whether to halt its march or change ourselves irrevocably into something different from what we are – to become beyond human. But then again, how human is your modern frappe-slurping, BlackBerry-using university student compared to his hunter gatherer ancestors? That’s evolution baby.

Wyatt Negrini can be reached at wyatt.negrini@mail.mcgill.ca.


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