William Gibson, The Peripheral

Reading a new William Gibson novel is both delightful and exciting. He delights with the cool, sardonic yet imaginative visions of the present and future. He excites with his uncanny glimpses of the future, grounded in canny selections from our time.

William Gibson, The PeripheralThe Peripheral offers another pleasure, that of Gibson trying something new. His recent brace of novels looked at the very near future, each following a normal linear path. His classic cyberpunk or Sprawl trilogy envisioned a medium-term future, also tending to thriller linearity.

But in The Peripheral we see a very different conceit and narrative structure. This novel relies on two timelines, one in the near-to-medium term future, and one almost a century away. At first we follow these in parallel, trying to infer connections. Then we learn that the further-along future has discovered a form of time travel – well, information exchange with the past, to be precise. The far-future signals the closer-to-us future, and has a proposition. Or two. Then more, which aren’t propositions but assassinations.

This dual-track time-travel-ish idea owes much to Gregory Benford’s 1980 novel Timescape. Other parallels appear; see spoiler section at the bottom of this post.

The future-near-to-us characters are also the more sympathetic. They focus on a young, poor Southern woman, Flynn Fisher, and her family. They live in a postwar backwater, where the economy barely exists apart from illegal drug manufacture. Flynn helps her vet brother, Burton, with an online job and witnesses what seems to be a strange murder. In the future-farther-away we see a PR flack, Wilf Netherton, working with a Russian crime family and their staff. Wilf has made an unspecified bad move, and is trying to improve his situation. Continue reading

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Net neutrality versus social justice: the case for zero rating

zeroCould one argue against net neutrality in order to support poor people?  This seems to be what Wikipedia is urging, and offers all of us an unusual spin on the net neutrality question.

The key to this approach is that it isn’t about fast lanes, but something called zero rating.

See, the usual net neutrality debate focuses on ISPs wanting to charge users more for extra-large and/or extra-demanded traffic: fast lanes for Netflix, for example.  (There’s also the political angle of charging more for certain content, but set that aside for now) ISPs claim certain rich media content is enormously costly for them to support, and that it makes business sense to pass those costs back to the demanding consumer.  The EFF (whom I support) argues that this goes against the internet’s foundational principles, and makes ISPs unjust arbiters of user experience, worsening the internet for nearly everyone.

Zero rating goes in the opposite direction.  It’s the principle by which ISPs, especially mobile service providers, charge less, actually nothing (hence the name), for certain types of internet service and content.  For example, a user might pay subscription rates for everything except Facebook or Google.  ISPs benefit by attracting new subscribers; poor users benefit by getting access to some of the internet they would otherwise not be able to see.

Wikimedia foundation logoThis is where Wikipedia comes in.  Their mission is to create and spread that encyclopedia’s knowledge as far as possible.  Read that carefully balanced, very nuanced linked article, and you’ll see them trying to balance net neutrality, information access, and a service mission of helping the world’s poor.  They still want net neutrality, and think they can have it alongside zero rating.

Where does education come into this? Here are some initial thoughts. Continue reading

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More international students on American campuses

IIE logoAmerican higher education saw a record number of international students this past academic year.  Let’s look at some details from the IIE report.

The number of internationals: 886,052 students took classes.  That’s nearly one million, and a rising number.

This marks the eighth consecutive year that Open Doors reported expansion in the total number of international students in U.S. higher education… and the rate of increase has risen steadily for the past four years…

The origin of students: most of these students came from south and east Asia.  Here are the top ten, according to IIE:

International students by nationChina, India, South Korea and you have more than one half of the foreign student population.

Which campuses attract the greatest number of foreign students?

New York University is now the host of the largest number of international students, moving up from the number four spot. The University of Southern California is now the second leading host, after twelve years as number one. These two universities were followed by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Columbia University (moving up to #4), and Purdue University…

There’s nothing shockingly new in this study.  It’s a snapshot of a rising trend in world education, a pointer to an increasingly important part of American higher education.

We can connect it to the decline in the total number of students enrolled (source).  And also note this economic aspect:

International students contribute more than $27 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Open Doors 2014 reports that about 74 percent of all international students receive the majority of their funds from sources outside of the United States, including personal and family sources as well as assistance from their home country governments or universities.

I can easily imagine a medium-term future where 1/4th of U.S. college and university students come from abroad.


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Peering ahead to 2064

(This article is part of the ‘Think Further’ series, sponsored by Fred Alger Management. For more ‘Think Further’ content and videos, click here.)

Yesterday I participated in a Twitter discussion about the future of technology.  The assignment: imagine how things could change over the next fifty years.  It was a huge brief, and I was glad (honored!) to have noted sf author, futurist, and scientist David Brin on the Twitterpanel with other foresightful folks.  Discussion was fast and generous.

Altar of Technology_zeitfaenger-atPreparing for it, I set myself several conceptual frameworks.  One is the problem of perceiving technology over different timescales.  We often overestimate a new technology’s impact in the short term, impact, while underestimating its long-term.  Applying this, we might imagine many technologies we currently see as emerging (social media, mobile devices, wearable computing, gaming, big data) will increase in importance over the next decades.

A second concept was returning technology to culture.  It’s a mistake to separate the two, or to consider the former without looking at the latter.  Futuring (and looking at the present) gains much by combining the two.  This lets us anticipate cultural changes as new technologies appear and grow.  For example, new forms of storytelling have already appeared in gaming, from branching narratives to the MMO experience.  Another example is the way popularly used mobile devices have altered the rules for political participation.

Imagine how cultures will change over the next decades as these technologies grow further – then imagine what utterly new technologies will appear from those new cultures.

Bearing those two ideas in mind, I headed into the Twitter discussion, and found much of it focused on a different conceptual pair: artificial intelligence and robotics.  Participants were keen to explore their fates under the impact of what I took to calling AI/bots, since the two seem likely to meld into one.  Setting fifty years as a limit let us step away from current frustrations with those technologies, and consider ethical, political, and personal issues.

Economics led the way, as we pondered what kind of work and society would result from massive infusions of automation.  We thrashed out the unemployment problem, and debated what kinds of new, post-automation jobs would appear.  Versions of the culture of 2054 began to appear: widespread unemployment, or many people working as bot-herders, or swarms of new ways of making a living.  Emotion-literate technologies challenged human relations, eliciting the possibility of machines becoming better able to assess people’s emotions than, well, people.

Turning to my two leading ideas, I raised the idea of social media uses of AI, but David Brin beat me to it, wondering about massive assemblages of sensors used by distributed AIs.  This could happen if we continue shifting more of our lives to social media, uploading ever more content, for decades, and if AI evolves to take advantage of it.  What kind of entities would these AIs become: corporate, political organizations, religious movements, art projects?

…and then our Twitter panel’s time was up.  We paused on that note of rapidly expanding possibility.

I need some time to reflect on the discussion, and return to this post.

(image by zeitfaenger.at)

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A snapshot of faculty teaching in 2014

What do we know about how American college and university faculty are teaching undergraduates?  The new HERI study (pdf) offers some fascinating insights into instructors’ practices.

Caveats: the report covers full-time faculty, not part-timers*.  It’s also based on self-reporting.

In the digital realm, the majority of faculty (circa 83%) have not taught an online class.  But that number is declining, and is unevenly spread across institutional type:

Faculty teaching online

Generally speaking, academic rank is a useful indicator of online teaching.  The lower one’s rank, the likelier to have used videos in class, taught entirely online, and used discussion boards.

For example,

faculty teaching online by rank to 2014_HERI


Regardless of their technological habits, college and university instructors are increasingly using student-centered practices, especially in historical context: Continue reading

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Thoughts on Interstellar

Looking up at the EarthI just watched Interstellar with my son, and wanted to share some reactions.

Overall, I was very impressed, and moved on a personal level.  The story was emotionally powerful, epic in ambition.  As science fiction, the movie crammed in far more scientific information and sf genre work than most mainstream films would ever attempt.  Personally, the father-daughter narrative hit me hard, and I enjoyed watching a pro-space exploration film with my similarly pro-NASA son.

Why blog about this science fiction movie here?  I’ll answer that question at the end of this post.  First, let me dive into details.  Please be aware that Interstellar is very plot-driven, so there are many spoilers ahead.  These notes aren’t ordered by consequence; this isn’t an essay.





Go! Continue reading

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Conversing with COIL

COILPenn State’s splendid Center for Online Innoation in Learning (COIL) hosted me for a campus visit this September. There they interviewed me about higher education’s near- and medium-term future.

Larry Ragan and I touched on alternatives to higher education, collaboration technologies, lobbying legislatures and would-be students, the college premium, advice to campus administrators, and some of my scenarios.  Don’t miss our discussion of the importance of social media and the global stage for college and university leaders.

Embedded here:

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