STEM Sells (Buyer Beware)

STEM. It sounds sciencey, doesn’t it? A stem is a type of cell, after all, as well as one of the two structural axes of a vascular plant, or tracheophyte. There are also “stem groups” in evolutionary biology, and Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy, and Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modellers. Probably there’s a group of physicists somewhere who play Jean-Michel Jarres covers and call themselves “The Stems”. Yes, STEM is a sciencey acronym for the sciencey twenty-first century.

STEM, as 3QD readers will know, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. And it is the go-to concept for anyone concerned with the future of our embattled species, especially when it comes to questions of how that species will continue to reproduce itself under conditions of waged labour and property and profit. Ever on the lips of politicians or at the fingertips of commentators, it is the universal remedy, not only to economic problems, but also to problems of social inclusion and democratic participation. Wondering about what kind of jobs we’ll be doing in the future? Think STEM. Worried about the future place of women in the workforce? Think STEM. Beginning to doubt the wisdom of sending yet another generation of kids to college, where they can accumulate yet more student debt and keep the financial sector ticking over? Think STEM.

Well, STEM schtem, I say, at least until someone can tell me, in a bit more detail, what it is our kids are supposed to be doing with all these sexy, STEMMY skills. For to dig down past the bland assertions of Bill Gates and his analogues, through all the rather vague pronouncements about generic skills and job clusters and coding and systems thinking and the like, is to discover, well, not much at all. I must have read at least fifty reports on the importance of STEM in the last couple of years, and nearly all of them cite the same statistic that 75% of the fastest-growing occupations will require workers with a STEM education. Little mention is made of what these sectors are, or of how big those sectors might become (regardless of their rate of growth), and when one digs down a little further most of them seem to lead back eventually to a handful of slightly aged studies. It’s all beginning to smell a bit fishy. What is going on?

One thing that’s going on, of course, is that policy makers and analysts are trying to grapple with what we all agree is an epochal change in the nature of our economy – a fourth technological revolution in which robotisation/automation will come to displace – is already displacing – a massive number of occupations currently performed by us higher primates. Nor will all of the most vulnerable jobs be the unskilled, low-paid ones at the “bottom”; unlike previous technological revolutions, this one threatens occupations in the middle of the income scale, and is set to bring about as a consequence an increasing “polarisation” of the workforce, with manual and menial workers at one end and higher white-collar professionals at the other. This will increase inequality, which will in turn impede mobility (such as it is) between the classes. It also has the potential, of course, to generate massive unemployment.

Those who think this is likely to happen – let’s call them the Cassandras for now – are urging us to think out of the capitalist box – to prepare for the coming “jobocalypse” and, indeed, for the crisis of realisation – i.e. the inability of business to realise its profits in a marketplace denuded of well-paid consumers – that is bound to follow hard on its heels. These commentators will often call for a reinvention of social democracy based around a guaranteed income, a shorter working week and so on, and the more intellectually ambitious among them will see this as a stepping stone to a new “post-capitalist” society. That emerging technologies such as 3D printing rely on digital information that can be stored and shared for free gives a tantalising bit of credibility to this hope.

Those who take the alternative view – the Pollyannas, until further notice – suggest that the fear of what John Maynard Keynes called “technological unemployment” is overstated, and that it is far more likely that the capitalist economy will adapt, as it has adapted before, to radically changed and changing conditions. They point, not unreasonably, to the anxieties of politicians and commentators of the past – US economist Wassily Leontief, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Keynes himself – and invite the Cassandras to consider their record of prediction in this connection (not good). Capitalism, they say, will cope with the disruption, just as it coped with disruptions in the past. The washing machine did for the laundry maid, but the laundry maid went on to other things, and anyway who wants to do the fricken laundry! It is here that STEM tends to make its appearance.

There’s no denying that the Pollyannas make some very makeable points, but they seem to me to be in some danger of perpetrating at least two fallacies. (I’m hoping Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse will tell me if I’m wrong on this.) The first is a fallacy of composition: just because emerging technologies haven’t destroyed the capitalist economy in the past doesn’t mean that emerging technologies won’t destroy the capitalist economy in future – a capitalist economy, by the way, that is doing a pretty good job of destroying itself, if certain economists are to be believed. The second fallacy is our old friend the non sequitur: just because the future is going to be more technologically advanced than the present doesn’t mean there will necessarily be more jobs in technology. It can’t have escaped the Pollyannas’ notice that the robots are made and maintained by robots, which are made and maintained by other robots, or that some of the “fastest-growing” professions are going to remain, well, pretty small. Biomedical engineering is growing at a cracking rate but I haven’t seen many biomed jobs advertised in the local prints.

There is more than a whiff of groupthink about this, as well as a sense that certain interests are being snuck in under Panacea’s petticoats. Fear of economic decay and defeat – “Look at China surging ahead!” – is a tactic long deployed by lobbyists, and I’ve no doubt that having an oversupply of STEM-educated labour will be good for those industries hoping to benefit from future technologies. (Such an oversupply would allow them to control wages – i.e. to keep them low.) Meanwhile regular references to STEM allow politicians to sound in control – to sound as if they have a plan for the future. My own Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, rode in to power singing the praises of the new tech and assuring his fellow Australians – who are just now beginning to feel the effects of the end of a resources boom – that “There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.” Since then he’s managed to recommit his party to the coal industry and screw up the national broadband network.

That much of the STEM-related material (and the Pollyannaish excitement surrounding it) heralds from the universities gives it a cachet it wouldn’t otherwise have. But education is a sector, too, and it lobbies just as aggressively as any other. Is it too cynical to suggest that, perhaps, our universities might look kindly on solutions that ensure a cascade of fresh bodies through their doors? In Australia education is now the third biggest export, and the foreign students who partake of it a valued source of casual labour. One doesn’t have to view the tertiary sector as a corrupt adjunct of the business community to entertain such reservations.

Education, of course, is the thing to which New Democrats of the Bill Clinton variety reflexively referred their base when they dropped their commitment to much of the architecture of post-war social democracy. Investment in it was supposed to translate into a new, and newly educated, workforce, as well as square the political circle between the priorities of social liberalism and those of the emerging, globalised economy. Education, and its close friend meritocracy, would replace the focus on equality of outcome with a focus on equality of opportunity, the effect of which is to rationalise and valorise the “flexibility” – i.e. precarity – that we all now feel in our neoliberal paradise. As risk has been transferred from capital to labour, the higher education sector has exploded. Both sides of politics now accept this situation and frame their policies with reference to it.

What we’re faced with now, it seems to me – and the STEM shtick is a part of this – is a kind of capitalist utopianism with education at its centre. Not only will the universities plug holes in the emerging economy; they will also create the entrepreneurs and innovators who will invent that economy, while also evolving the “clean” technologies that will save our over-baked planet from extinction. Moreover, by attracting more “women and girls” into STEM subjects they will ensure that the rewards of tomorrow will be equally shared among the sexes. Well spank me red and call me “Elon”, if we haven’t just solved the problems of the world in a single, sexy, sciency soundbite!

Rather than simply hoping for the best, as per the prescriptions of utopian capitalism, might not our time, or some of our time, be better spent thinking about what kind of world we actually want on the other side of this? Even if the Pollyannas are right and capitalism thrives in this new environment, is “jobs and growth” the be all and end all? The new tech offers opportunities for an entirely new relationship with work and an entirely new economy. But governments, which could be discussing ways of socialising this new technology, instead only think about capitalising it, or rather about enabling debt-encumbered Millennials to capitalise it for them, down the road. That is the subtext of much STEM-speak: “Hold tight, and an army of capitalist boffins – energetic mini Zuckerbergs and Musks – will keep us all afloat for another century.”

As an unofficial spokesperson for the Cassandra camp, I can assure you that we are not at all nihilistic about our species’ future. It’s just that we think that another version of what we have now – an eight-hour day and a five-day week, jobs full of pointless busywork – isn’t much of a prospect, frankly. Nor are we down on STEM “skills”. Speaking for myself, I’d love a few of those, if only so I can fix some of the obsolescent crap that capitalism obliges me to buy with my meagre wages. But that’s knowledge I can get for free, increasingly, via the YouTube tutorial. See what the new technology can do!

What I’m saying is that it’s us who are the real Pollyannas and the Pollyannas who are the real Cassandras. Capitalism is a dying system and new technologies hold out the prospect of a comfortable and meaningful existence beyond it – a life in which there will be plenty of time to contemplate the glories of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To that end, I recommend an alternative course of study, on history, ownership and political economy. HOPE. Sounds politicy, doesn’t it?


First published at 3 Quarks Daily