Part 1: On Persons of the Future
Letter from prison
Tell me your thoughts. Are things actually bad or is it just me?
Everybody says this is normal. This is what’s supposed to happen. Yet it doesn’t feel normal. It feels like slavery. I am a slave. Worse than a slave. A slave both of body and of mind.
Every day, I wake up early. Too early, if you ask me. Starting from 8 am until 2 pm I have work. We get 10-minute breaks every hour, yet we can’t really do anything during those 10 minutes. It’s only allowed to go out to the gated yard. They say it’s for our protection.
This is not a job one can quit. Nor one can change. There is no pay for this job. They say the work itself will pay in the long run.
During work time, we all have to do what they tell us. That’s fine, I can deal with it. The problem is we also have to think what they tell us. This is what’s killing me.
We are micromanaged. Under constant supervision at all times. The supervisor asks us things. This is how they check if we are thinking the things they tell us. They say it’s for our own good.
We’re not allowed to collaborate for the work. It’s the same work for everyone, but everyone has to do it for themselves. They monitor if we collaborate and if we do, then our work is annulled. They say it’s for justice.
Some special times we have to collaborate. Then the work is opposite. One is forced to collaborate, even with workers they don’t like. They say it’s for society.
In comparison to my coworkers, I have it pretty good. I can focus on the thinking material they ask us and I’m pretty good at the work. Also, I’m terrified when they yell at us. So I only do the things they tell us to do. I don’t even dare to think of doing anything else. The cost-benefit analysis was clear: such fear and shame are too much to bear. Admittedly, I’m a coward.
Some workers can’t take the pressure. They either abuse other workers or don’t do the work and the thinking. It usually ends badly. Usually yelling. I don’t mind it so much. Apart from my constantly elevated heartbeat, it also means that we get to have a few seconds off-thinking.
The workers are divided into groups by the year we were born. The thinking and the work are also divided by year. If you’re really bad at the work, then you have to do an entire year’s work again. I had some coworkers that went through that. It’s pretty rare though.
Some special times, things get extra ugly. Maybe a coworker lashes out and attacks another coworker. Sometimes the supervisors lash out. They can’t take the supervising pressure or just some other random thing in their lives. Who knows? They won’t tell us. They don’t tell us much in general; only what we are allowed to know. Only what’s relevant to the sanctioned work.
If, during work, one needs to go to the bathroom, they have to ask for permission. Sometimes the supervisors decline. Maybe because of important thinking, or just too many people went to the bathroom. There might be a quota.
Walking around your desk or getting up for a stretch is strictly prohibited. These are activities for break time only.
Our lunch break is 25 minutes. We can’t do much. We can’t cook. We have to either buy from the official store inside the enclave or bring food from home. But we can’t microwave it or something.
At 2 pm, the bell rings and the guard opens the gates. This is when we get to go home. Home is much better. Much more relaxed, but we still have to do work. It takes a few hours. After that, we are free. Or at least that’s what they say.
How can one be free if the only thing they can control in their life is a few hours per day? Let alone when they have no money to spend.
Slaves get limited free time per day. It is slaves that do not get paid for work. It is slaves that cannot quit.
Yet slaves are free to at least dream of freedom. They are free to think of it. Only a slave of mind is not. What could be worse than that?
It was the citizens of Airstrip One1 that had their thoughts controlled and it was with the same techniques: prescribed information to consume, defined language to talk, constant fear of punishment by the authority.
So, how could we ever expect even a remotely balanced person to come out of school?
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Airstrip One is a province of Oceania, the totalitarian superstate where the story takes place.
Experiences and stories, such as the one in the previous chapter, help us understand problems. Yet we frequently need systematic analyses of how something is unsatisfactory in order to progress at solving it.
In the following list, I tried to compile all problems I discovered in my experience being a student in schools of primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.
Lack of student autonomy. Every part and limit of the student’s behaviour is defined a priori. Their exact location during school hours is predetermined. Periods of sitting and standing are decided almost by law. Predefined hours of being inside and outside. Predefined and forced single viewpoint: written in the approved book, expressed by the teacher, established by the legislator. Even further: students’ thoughts are mandated to follow and adopt their teacher’s thoughts at all times.
Failure in diversity management. Not everyone has the same talents, skills, background, desires. Yet, not only is everything already defined, but it’s also identical for all. Even if people’s characteristics coincide, the timing may not. Still, in the eyes of the educational system, same age means same person.
Lack of teacher autonomy. Defining teaching material by the state might have been a good idea in the past, but now, all knowledge is available to everyone—for free—and that changes everything. The role of the teacher is—and has probably always been—nothing more than the role of a repeater. It doesn’t have to be this way and, usually, a small set of creative teachers demonstrates and proves this daily. Forging teacher homogeneity to shield students from bad teachers has resulted in the total restriction of teachers. Inescapably, this has led to a total lack of creativity and teaching becoming a lifeless transfer of information, as opposed to the achievement of quenching one’s thirst for knowledge. Undeniably, one cannot have the power for creation without also having the freedom for destruction.
Lack of teacher quality assessment. Measuring is fundamental to improving. Absence of improvement inevitably leads to absence of skill.
Lack of regard for the teacher's responsibility towards society. The importance of the work of the teacher is monumentally undervalued. High-quality teachers are intrinsically connected to more educated society members. Extremely important propositions cascade from this; for instance, higher quality representative democracy due to better educated voters.
Blatant ageism. Our model is limited to adult teachers teaching young kids. Unfortunately, even kids teaching kids was too bizarre for those who defined the societies we inherit to consider.
Pointless curricula size. The quantity of knowledge attempted to be taught to students in primary and secondary education is too immense. Both in terms of a twelve-year educational system and in terms of continuous learning for six or seven hours per day every day.
Pointless curricula content. Humanity’s hive mind, the Internet, makes every piece of information available in a few seconds’ time. Many agree: there is no point in learning information; there is point in learning fundamentals.
Irrelevant methods of teaching. Lifeless lectures, indifferent presentations, eternal monologues, stressful exams; even digitally assisted learning and/or interactive learning—unfortunately, all of these have turned out to be disappointing and ineffective. True learning happens in one’s mind, alone, with a community of people around for support—not for pouring knowledge into an empty mind-bucket.
Total disregard for art. Virtually everything is revolving around STEM. Art, in any form, is completely disfavoured by everyone: teachers, students, parents, lawmakers. Art’s timeless honesty has perpetuated the human era since its inception, yet at some point, it was deemed unworthy for the intellectual foundation of new humans.
Partial disregard for the humanities. Along with its aforementioned conceptual subclass, human disciplines have fallen out of favour, as being ineffective in building wealth—the core value of the West’s social imaginary.
Total disregard for physical knowledge. Disturbingly small amount of school-approved time in exercising, sports, or any other bodily activity.
Existence of homework. Many of the hardest working professions allow for leisure time at home; not school though.
Limited societal framework. Students are learning from teachers in a restricted facility for an extraneously defined set of hours per day. School has been shaped as a silo, when it could have been shaped as an essential, integrated part of everybody’s—even non-parent non-student adults’—societal life.
Against adult supremacy
In a few hundred years, when we talk about the past, it’ll be this reflection that will inhabit the social consciousness: how did we ever think it was normal to treat people as slaves just because of their age?
We will look back and disapprove of anyone who forced people to do things they didn’t want to, just because—at that point—these people were alive for less than 18 years. What we think of slave masters now, we’ll think of “adults” then. Because, just like with slaves, there are exactly zero good reasons to force another consciousness to do something they don’t want to do.
By pouring their derision
Upon anything we did
Exposing every weakness
However carefully hidden by the kids
But in the town, it was well known
When they got home at night, their fat and
Psychopathic wives would thrash them
Within inches of their lives
— Pink Floyd, The Happiest Days of our Lives, 1979
Just like with slave owners, there were some nasty ones, but there were also humane ones. The same parallel difference exists between strict parents and teachers and more lenient and sympathetic ones.
Just like the first people who opposed slavery were considered amusing or funny, most of the readers of this text will smile in response, speculating I must be exaggerating.
But the grim reality of our present era is that there is yet one more, deeply entrenched, hierarchy inside our by-other-metrics progressive Western societies. Some humans among us are second rate. They are considered of inferior intellect. Just like slaves were considered the same. They are not equal citizens. They cannot vote, the fundamental—however pretentious—right of democracy has been subtracted from them. Let’s take a moment to grasp this. We consider the era when women could not vote one of inadequate democracy, an era where only half the population was able to take part in defining how we live. Let us realise now that we disregard this class of humans in such a high degree that we do not even consider them as part of the two halves that could potentially vote.
In the future, history books will be rewritten and what they will say about women’s suffrage is not that the other half of the population was finally allowed to vote in the 20th century. Instead, history books will say that in the 20th century the second third of the population was allowed to vote. It took hundreds of years more for the final third of the population to be considered equal.
It feels like the obsolescence of adulthood is such a radical concept that it will take centuries for it to materialise. Consider the case of slaves. From the beginning of the first human civilisation—across the globe—in one form or another, all peoples had an implementation of the notion of slavery. The worldwide abolition of slavery (which is not complete but at least on a very significant degree done) is a victory of gigantic proportions for humanity. One of similar proportions will be needed for the abolition of adulthood.
I don’t know how. Comparing with the abolitionist movement and the women’s right to vote, we should start talking and writing2 about it. This can only be regarded as a first step, though. Maybe we’ll never consider new humans equal. Maybe we’ll go in the opposite direction and limit their freedom even more. Neither is the future of humanity predetermined, nor the arrow of progress singular. What will be considered ethical and progressive in a hundred years is at play right now. In other words, if we don’t change our definition of fairness—ourselves—to include new humans’ opinions as a must-have, then the future world will still be fair—just with a different definition of fairness.
Whether we know it or not, it is us who decide what is fair. Not: “we can decide what’s fair”. We decide it whether we do it consciously or not.
Let’s own it, then. Let’s think about it hard and let’s define fairness consciously.
Think we must. Let us think in offices; in omnibuses; while we are standing in the crowd watching Coronations and Lord Mayor’s Shows; let us think as we pass the Cenotaph; and in Whitehall; in the gallery of the House of Commons; in the Law Courts; let us think at baptisms and marriages and funerals. Let us never cease from thinking–what is this “civilization” in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?
Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, 1938
In 2021, John Wall published the book: Give Children the Vote: On Democratizing Democracy, ISBN: 978-1350196261.
Advice to new programmers
In 2010, James Hague, a recovering programmer3, gave some advice4 to new programmers.
He said, if you are someone who would write something like this:
Hey everyone! I just learned Erlang / Haskell / Python / [etc.], and now I'm looking for a big project to write in it. If you've got ideas, let me know!
...then, you're doing it wrong. He went on:
There's nothing about solving a problem or overall usefulness or any relevant connection between the application and the interests of the original poster. Would you trust a music notation program developed by a non-musician? A Photoshop clone written by someone who has never used Photoshop professionally?
What he says is that it’s not worth learning a tool for the sake of it. He suggests to aimless, excited programmers: find a problem first and then figure out how to use tools to solve it. This way you become an expert [to a small, tightly defined domain].
I don’t think this advice to new programmers, who are indeed many times excited and aimless, is good advice. It would have been fine if programming was just a tool. But it’s not. It’s also a craft and craft practicing is meaningful by itself.
What I would suggest, instead, both to my younger self and even to myself now, is the following:
You’ve chosen an extremely fun path! One thing only: don’t expect to find any projects to write the language you learned soon. Write your own projects. Let them be pointless. Write an FTP server, write a BitTorrent client, write a PNG parser/library, build a Tetris game, and a Chess engine, and a Space Invaders clone.
All these might be pointless because there are already tons of high quality open source implementations of these programs. They might also be useless; maybe they will have only one user, you.
But this doesn’t really matter—as long as you’re writing code—that’s the fun part of it. Not only that, but while you’re having all this fun, you’re actually learning a ton about building software in the language you’ve chosen. While coding, you may also check out other, existing, open source clones of what you’re making. This way you can see how different problems map to various designs. Through this, you also learn how to read code5. Whenever you see yet another open source chess engine, you learn to look for specific components and design choices. E.g. how has this programmer solved problem X and how problem Y?
All of this skill practicing on researching, designing interfaces, writing code, reading code, understanding trade-offs, touching a lot of different domains, will mainly be fun but, inadvertently, will also be extremely useful. Just not immediately. Coding, as an intersection of craft and knowledge is not about usefulness anyway. But coding is also about building tools, which is fundamentally about usefulness.
What I’m really concerned about is reaching one person. And that person may be myself for all I know.
— Jorge Luis Borges
Reading code (both oneself’s and other people’s) is underappreciated when learning to program, yet it is fundamental in building software.