Americans on the future of science and technology: meh

Pew Internet logoA new Pew/Smithsonian report offers a sobering picture of how Americans see the future of science and technology.  At first glance the report sounds like typical futurism, revealing people imagining and weighing alternative possibilities.

But on closer examination we find our expectations are generally unexcited and restrained.  The bold imagination of 20th-century American visions seems to have gone for a nap.  As Smithsonian’s article notes, “Most Americans view the technology- driven future with a sense of hope. They just don’t want to live there.”  We’re actually less excited than that.

There is only one area where American expectations are both ambitious and positive: health care.  Some new medical technology looks great to us:

“Fully eight in ten (81%) expect that within the next 50 years people needing new organs will have them custom grown in a lab… three-quarters or more of every major demographic group feels that custom organs are likely to become a reality in the next half-century.”

We see medical improvements as a key and desireable part of the overall future: “Asked to describe in their own words the futuristic inventions they themselves would like to own, the public offered three common themes:… [the third of which was] health improvements that extend human longevity or cure major diseases.”

Otherwise, we back off from enthusiasm about tomorrow. Continue reading

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“Let the death spiral whirl”: Slate celebrates the destruction of small colleges

Slate.comSlate offers an intriguing article on the impending demise of small, private colleges, and why we should all celebrate this.  It is an instructive piece because it presents an example of aggressive education reform’s thinking.  It’s a lesson on how to support the decline of higher education, even from a putatively liberal perspective (Slate’s political slant).  As the author puts it, “Small private colleges aren’t necessarily nefarious institutions, but…”

First, author Weissmann takes care to establish that the targeted schools are not rich.  “[F]orget about elite schools Amherst or Wesleyan (they’re doing fine, anyway).”  Being modestly resourced, tuition dependent, or doing much with less is enough to toss these campuses into the “whirling death spiral” column*.  There’s a severe Darwinism here, perhaps appropriate for a Moneybox piece, but also a heaping of elitism.  The key point is a kind of financial determinism – we know successful colleges by their great wealth, and therefore the opposite must be true.  A school’s lack of affluence is not an operational challenge or even a virtue in this view, but a moral failing, punishable in the market.  I don’t need to make the case for schools remaining outside of market forces to some degree, do I?

A key part of this is accepting Moody’s assessments uncritically.  The 2008 financial crash surely taught us to not do that again, didn’t it? Continue reading

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Concluding the Second Machine Age

Second Machine Age1389195493With this post I come to the end of a public reading of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age (previous posts).

Reflecting on this final chapter, I was more interested in SMA-themed stories from the past week than on the very short text itself.

Item: can museums use Watson to analyze art? The Center for the Future of Museums considers.

Item: Toyota workers are trying new ways to make themselves valuable in robot-rich environments.

Item: Brad Delong, a high-profile economist, presents two stark choices for a Second Machine Age world in the New York Times.

The optimistic view is that our collective ingenuity will create so many things for people to do that are so attractive to the rich that they will pay through the nose for them and so recreate a middle-class society.

The pessimistic view…: our future is one of human beings chained to desks and screens acting as numbed-mind cogs for Amazon Mechanical Turk, forever.

Item: economist Dean Baker doesn’t think education plus technology skills yields high income.

The patterns in the data show that inequality is not a question of the more-educated gaining at the expense of the less-educated due to inevitable technological trends. Rather, it has been a story in which a small group of especially well-situated workers — for example, those in finance, doctors, and top-level corporate executives — have been able to gain at the expense of almost everyone else.

On to the final chapter, 15, entitled “Technology and the Future (which is very different from Technology Is the Future)”. Continue reading

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Peak higher education hits Bloomberg

Bloomberg logoBloomberg News caught on to the peak higher education idea this week.  They offer a different term, “the college contraction“, and add some excited language:

Small U.S. Colleges Battle Death Spiral

The article does a fine job of summarizing trends. For example, this passage hits enrollment decline, students shifting institutional types, and the queen sacrifice – in two sentences:

Dozens of schools have seen drops of more than 10 percent in enrollment, according to Moody’s. As faculty and staff have been cut and programs closed, some students have faced a choice between transferring or finishing degrees that may have diminished value.

Michael McDonald emphasizes institutional bond ratings, unsurprising given Bloomberg’s financial focus.  Note the post-recession upward spike from 2011 on:

Number of universities receiving Moody's downgrades Continue reading

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Backing away from one queen sacrifice

In this season of colleges and universities performing queen sacrifices, one institution has backed away from its attempt.

The University of Southern Maine announced it would cut faculty, staff, and programs last month.  Student and faculty protests ensued (see Doug Henwood’s podcast for more on this). But the institution’s president changed her mind on Friday.

Why did president Kalikow reverse the sacrifice?    She explained herself in terms of faculty governance:

“The faculty made a good case that they had possibly better ideas… it’s best for USM for the faculty and administration to be more tightly involved in these crucial decisions.”

Lambert Strether (of the splendid Naked Capitalism blog) argues that student and faculty pressure caused the reversal.  Bad publicity on the national stage (i.e., Krugman) also played a role.

However, the ax is still out: Continue reading

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Signs of peak higher education: the return of vo tech

How does America’s education system change, if we just passed peak higher ed?  One response might be a return to vocational technology curricula.

Consider: if the college world is starting to shrink, how will people learn skills for careers? The state of Minnesota has apparently decided to expand classic vo tech.  For example, one Democratic legislator makes the connection explicit:

“The leading voices have been the students and the business sector – students with their comments about crushing debt and job insecurity and industry with their complaints that they’re not able to fill the jobs that they currently have open,” said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka and chair of the higher education committee.

It’s not just one state’s Democrats:

Although some state lawmakers have long advocated for vocational education, [Minnesota Commissioner of Higher Education Larry Pogemiller] said, Obama played a large role in raising its profile here.

shop class, 1960

Shop class, 1960

Again, education economics are crucial here. Continue reading

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How to survive our robot overlords

Second Machine Age1389195493This week our reading of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age advances to policy recommendations.  (If you haven’t followed along, here are all of the posts)

Chapter 13: Policy Recommendations

Here the authors focus on the short term, and their primary piece of advice: “For now the best way to tackle our labor force challenges is to grow the economy.” (207)  And they follow through on this score, outlining ways to improve the national (or global) economy: improve schools; boost entrepreneurship; make hiring and finding jobs more efficient; spend more on scientific research; repair infrastructure; try out new forms of taxation. Continue reading

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