AT&T Bell Laboratories
This 40th Anniversary of the discovery of the transistor and the subsequent communication and computer capabilities establishing the Information Age have marked the full shaping of an industrial revolution. In this, the older substitution of muscle by machine and of craftsmanship by automata, is now being succeeded by systems design and engineering. In this, the individual has not only a diminishing role, but also a more demanding and subtle one, as humans remain the ultimate intelligence and source of skill for almost everything that industry does.
But this increasingly keen realization industrial leadership, and its engineering and creative underpinnings, that machines and automata mostly supplement and do not substitute for human beings is being frustrated by counter-currents in our democracy. This is primarily because of illiteracy and educational lapse including about 25 million adults presently functionally illiterate, with another 40 million nearly so. More than 15% of our youth do not finish high school and in areas of strong.economic growth such as the South, a quarter of the present adult population did not go beyond the eighth grade. These circumstances, which have been dealt with in many current studies such as “A Nation at Risk…,” Making America Work Again,” “Investing In our Children,” have a profound but yet to be fully analyzed influence on our industrial responsibility. This mission, to provide economic and social opportunities for widening diversity of demographic elements in our nation, has serious obstacles. For instance a large fraction of the approximately 3 1/2 million 22 year olds that will comprise our diminishing young resources in the Nation in 1990 will according to present experience, be unable to perform in the ways required for information and automated industry, especially in competition with other parts of the world. This is happening in the systems businesses of information, communication, media, finance, health care, automated factory production, and even such traditional basic exercises as agricultural and food industry technologic and operational support.
A consequence of these limitations of the severest character may be an estrangement from democratic processes of voting, discussing, and proacting to major, social, and political issues. Sobering indications of this have been appearing for some years. Even in the higher learning stages of citizen development, such as the aspirations of college freshmen surveyed under the leadership of Dr. Alexander W. Astin and conducted by The Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA, this year no less than a quarter of the freshmen aspired to “business careers,” with trivial percentages like 0.2 interested in the building trades, 0.3% for electronics, 0.6% for mechanics, 0.9% for social work, 0.5% for economics, 1% for architecture and urban planning, 1.2% for health technology, 0.4% for physics, 0.6% for chemistry. These findings all communicate eloquently that a grasp of substance, long socially agreed to be the eventual base for learning “business” and growing in industry, has been little heeded. “Business” cannot be mastered or even learned as an abstraction.
This is not a matter of why doesn't everybody study science or engineering or languages or economics or get smart with computers. Rather it is symbolic of an illusion that both industry and a quality of life can provide some kind of support activity for citizens (maybe on borrowed money) without the citizens knowing about and working for operational systems of national strength that are nowadays highly technical (and indirectly even scientific.) The workers we emphasize, do not have to be technical sophisticates, but they must have literacy enabling use of their minds.