02/23/2020 | News release | Distributed by Public on 02/24/2020 00:59
Did you know The Simpsons is still on? It is! In 2018 it surpassed Gunsmoke as the longest-running primetime scripted series. Two years ago!
Like some of my colleagues, I'm very familiar with the first seven or eight seasons of this show. I've got a lot of them on DVD, and over the years I bet I've seen the first 150 episodes a dozen times each. These were the show's golden years. But while I took a break from watching new episodes over 20 years ago, the show didn't wait around for me. They're still churning 'em out. They retired characters when the voice actors died. They made a movie. They once rebranded 7-Elevens to look like Kwik-e-Marts. There's a section of Universal Studios Florida modeled after Springfield. The show even predicted a Donald Trump presidency. The Simpsons has now outlived three of our family dogs.
Anyway, after approximately two decades away, I decided last weekend was time to tune back in. So I did. And what do you know - the episode's plot was all about STEM education and the future of work!
It's also still kinda funny in Season 31, which was a nice surprise!
What happens in episode No. 674 of The Simpsons?
Okay, the show begins with the Sea Captain - one of the show's one-note characters, who Homer once sued for falsely advertising an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet - finding sunken treasure in Springfield Bay after 40 years of hunting. It's immediately appropriated by Mayor Quimby on behalf of the city, and a public meeting is called to decided what the treasure should be spent on. After a few ideas - 'a new zoo with more attractive animals,' or 'a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with no Pearl Jam' - Marge convinces everyone to invest in a STEM school, which will teach Springfield's kids a curriculum centered around the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers are forced into retirement, and a state-of-the-art STEM campus run entirely by an educational algorithm is built across the street from Springfield Elementary.
The Simpson kids initially love it. There are lots of laptops and smart ID badges. Lisa is ID'ed as a 'divergent multi-pathway assimilator,' meaning she's put into a gifted class where she's actually given a STEM education, while Bart and the rest of the students spend their days happily playing app-based video games to train for future work in the gig economy.
Homer, meanwhile, becomes paranoid after participating in the school's career day and being told by the school CEO that his job will shortly become obsolete. He spends the rest of the episode railing against the coming robot-led labor apocalypse.
Lisa, meanwhile, begins to realize that despite the school's wonderful resources and curriculum, the algorithm is funneling most of its students toward careers of mechanical and insecure contract work. At one point she observes a class as it learns how to fill out a 1099-MISC form.
'These aren't the jobs of the future,' she gasps. 'They're side hustles!' So she confronts the CEO, who explains 'the algorithm's purpose is to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.'
'But this just teaching them to be the TaskRabbits of today! Nobody knows what the jobs of tomorrow will be,' she says. So they ask the algorithm, which reveals that the only jobs that robots won't automate will be in … eldercare.
The Simpsons over the years has reliably mocked the elderly, and this instance is no different. The horrified schoolchildren pull out their smart phones and give the STEM school one-star reviews, causing the school's computer to overheat and explode - destroying the campus. The episode ends with Lisa and Bart realizing that the jobs of the future will still all be in eldercare, and without the school and its curriculum they won't be prepared for them.
It's pretty bleak!
So … Does The Simpsons hold a dim view of STEM education?
The quick answer is yes. The episode suggests that STEM schools are essentially run by the most dystopian elements of our online lives - the algorithms that track our online activity and present us with advertising it thinks we're most likely to respond to. Lisa's gifted program is the only place where a STEM education is given. 'We did science, then we did computer science, and then we did cognitive computer science!' she tells Marge at dinner.
It should be noted, of course, that this is a cartoon show and it's only 21 minutes long. The episode is played for jokes and doesn't spend its time giving a detailed reading of the opportunity that STEM education holds. A good STEM education means giving students a well-rounded education, and the foundation necessary to compete for whatever the future of work may be. Because not all of the jobs of tomorrow will in eldercare.
So is The Simpsons wrong about the future of work?
Well, it jokingly suggests that the future of work is all in care for the elderly. There are certainly gonna be a lot of those (actually quite difficult jobs in the coming years, but no, our labor force is not going to be automated out of existence.)
This is what Andrew Yang based his recently suspended presidential campaign around: Industrial automation will inevitably render workers useless, so it's time to implement a universal basic income to allow the population to feed itself. The big mistake this theory makes is it assumes we've reached the end of history - that there's only one, inevitable outcome from the result of increase automation. It will be only be more automation, and we'll all be crowded out.
But despite the bleak ending, Lisa - who is ultimately the show's moral and ethical compass - got it right: Nobody knows what the jobs of tomorrow will be. While many jobs will indeed be made obsolete by the march of industrial automation, it's presumptuous to say they'll end all work, because new occupations will spring into being nonetheless. Imagine the number of jobs servicing industrial robots and troubleshooting problems they can't understand. Entire industries and occupations that we haven't even dreamt up yet will soon exist, because new technologies and scientific discoveries will make them possible. We just don't know what they are yet!
It's kinda scary! And also kinda great!
To get ready for them, we should be encouraging STEM education alongside the humanities in our primary and secondary schools, as well as STEM retraining for the sectors of our current workforce whose skillsets may be beginning to lapse. What's more, we should be setting public policies that encourage industrial innovation in this country - and we should be investing in large-scale public infrastructure projects so the future economy has to capacity to support these future industries.
It's a lot to think about. Anyway, The Simpsons is still on Sunday evenings on Fox. And here are a bunch of my favorite Simpsons clips.