Learn Lab China Community Sharing (Beijing, 20 December 2015)

My relationship with computing is rather like kindling an old romance, and that with education is rather than a fling that turned into a lot more. Education and books have always been a huge part of my life because quite literally they open my mind. But I’ve never entertained the idea of teaching one bit because I’m like, I enjoy solving problems, and then you realise: actually we are the problem – either because we do not care or that we do not have enough information – and in an age of information abundance, more often than not the former poses the bigger challenge.

My personal hypothesis is thus: the greatest challenge of our times is creating empathy at scale. Coding is important, for now – like a new language – as a basic literacy and the greatest wealth-creation engine mankind has ever seen since the dawn of us – but far more important than that is the ability to grasp and synthesise ideas from diverse fields, to model the world as you know it, and so forth; it has been never more important to be able to fully exploit the “advantages” of being human as machines run rampant.

I like to reflect on what has happened in my own life and how have those experiences shaped my perspectives so in preparation for the sharing session in Beijing last December I had distilled 3 key memories. When it comes to education and technology, there was the vivid memory of a secondary school Chinese teacher saying “never write about dreams!” In fact all language teachers used to ask us to NOT write about dreams, understandably. Yet looking back it was that emphasis on grades and writing a certain way that doth killed my love for the Chinese language by not just a little. I mean, I want to be melodramatic when I want to, alright? Hence I do agree to a large extent that our mainstream education system has a curious way of educating the curiosity out of us. This is most unfortunate as lifelong learning becomes a reality.

Another incident was buying a watermelon for less than what must have been $1 SGD at 9pm-ish in Nanxijiang only to realise from the vehicle license number that the seller had travelled at least 1000km to very incidentally quench of my thirst… Just wow. Imagine how much her life’d improve, in absolute terms, when she has easier access to information about market prices or when she is able to sell to a lot more people all at once thanks to a dramatic reduction in transaction costs.

The third thing that makes me so insistent about the place of code as a basic building block is the amount of automation that is going on. As manufacturing gets more done with lesser humans, we must be able to speak the language of the machines to collaborate effectively with them.

Yet our analog foundations in education is failing to maximise digital dividends for every child.

This is because of the fact that the two functions served by education, namely sorting and empowering, can be antagonistic to each other. Genius is randomly distributed, but opportunities follow a power law. Correlations cascade into outcomes of increasing inequality. This is why the Code for Asia Society exists. :)

And here’s a report of the event in Mandarin.

— Ernie