An illustrative story about public higher education funding

When people consider the decline of state support for public higher education, it’s commonplace to hear calls to reverse that trend.  What’s rare is to hear people describing plans for how such a fine reversal could occur.

I suspect it’s because folks realize that the political situation in most American states is so difficult to overcome.  I’m not referring to Trump, although he can make things worse on this score.  Instead, it’s clear that state legislatures generally have priorities they find more influential than sufficiently funding state universities.

Perhaps an instructive story will make that political fact more evident.

I’m drawing the following tale from a fine, story-rich 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education article by Karin Fischer and Jack Stripling.  The story I’d like you to listen to starts in the midwest:

More than a decade ago, the new governor of Michigan stood before a group of more than 1,000 business leaders and posed a simple question: Where would you make the first cut? The options were projected onto large screens in the Detroit convention hall: Health care. K-12. Prisons. Welfare. The arts. Higher education.

(The reason for this exercise was a bad economy, even for Michigan.  To continue:)

As a list of programs and government services flashed on the screen, Ms. Granholm asked members of the audience to press a button: Cut or keep?

“Where would you spend your first dollar?” she prompted. “Where would you make the first cut?”

The vote wasn’t even close. At the top of the list of cuts: the state’s universities.

Michigan State capitol_David Marvin

“The vote wasn’t even close.”

But that’s just one event, right?  It’s solely the whims of one population, surely?  No.  That vote was just the first of a series:

Over the next year, the governor would conduct a dozen similar forums around the state. Sometimes she asked participants to rank their favored programs. Other times she presented specific trade-offs: Eliminate after-school programs or scholarships for students at private colleges? Cut money for cooperative extension or prescription-drug help for senior citizens? No matter the size of the group, no matter where in the state, the results were always the same: Higher education should go on the chopping block.

Listen to that last bit again: “No matter the size of the group, no matter where in the state, the results were always the same: Higher education should go on the chopping block.”

Keep in mind that Michigan is not a deep red state.  It has a proud history of labor and civil rights activism.  It narrowly voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary.  Yes, it went for Trump in 2016, but only by a hair, and not by a majority of votes cast.  The governor in question?  Was she an anti-tax, Tea Partier Republican?  Nope.  She’s a Democrat.

In fact, let’s hear more about her from Fischer and Stripling:

It wasn’t that Ms. Granholm was hostile to higher education. Far from it. The first in her family to go to college, at Berkeley and then Harvard Law, she knew the power of a degree. Indeed, she would make doubling the number of college graduates a priority and promote community colleges as a way to retrain the state’s blue-collar workers.

But when it came down to it, as much as she valued higher education, Ms. Granholm considered other programs more crucial.

This is a story about severe economic stress.  While it’s the kind of stress most states felt in 2008 and some still experience now, not every legislature faces such economic urgency.  Yet the priority rankings remain widespread, from what I’ve seen.  Back to Granholm’s candidates: health care, K-12, prisons.  She adds “Welfare”; I would interpret this to include the full range of transfer payments and services, including pensions. Higher education cannot outcompete these domains for budget priorities.  Legislators will “consider other programs [to be] more crucial.”

There’s much more in that article, and I commend it to you.  It has many impressive stories.  I’m particularly struck by the resonance of this line from another story, concerning higher ed in Colorado:

The state is no longer—will not likely again be—a full partner with public colleges.

Yes, that’s the state not effectively partnering with the institutions it created and used to support well.

One more Michigan sample: the University of Michigan’s long-time president James Duderstadt once described his institution’s relation to the state government thusly:

As university president I used to explain that during this period we had evolved from a state-supported to a state-assisted to a state-related to a state-located university. In fact, with Michigan campuses now located in Europe and Asia, we remain only a state-molested institution.

Even if a campus isn’t expanding abroad, that’s a fine pair of sentences.

How will this story play out in the future?  How much longer will state governments continue to be such non-partners for public colleges and universities?

My speculation is that these political forces are nearly intractable for the short and medium-term future.  The political value of public higher ed’s competitors is just too high.  Additionally, some are becoming more expensive, notably health care and pensions.  If their value remains high, they’ll draw more from a state’s funding.

It’s possible that some of these competitors will decline in importance.  K-12 costs might tick down as demographic forces produce ever-smaller class sizes.  Schools and districts can respond to that by cutting the number of classes – i.e., reducing the number of teachers and associated staff, leading ultimately to less expensive primary and secondary school programs.  (This will require educators to not succeed in arguing for the pedagogical benefits of smaller classes.) It’s also possible that a millennial change wave could persuade states to reduce mass incarceration and decriminalize some offenses, leading eventually to less expensive penal systems.  Given American culture and politics, I think this might take some time to accomplish.  Demographics could help here, too, as active criminals tend to be younger.  Furthermore, we can imagine a Bernie Sanders-style health care financial reform that finally brings down the medical cost curve at the state level.

Alternatively, American culture could experience a sea change.  We might return to a mid-20th-century attitude of valuing public education highly as a public good.  This is Chris Newfield’s vision, which he articulated in a fine book and as a splendid Future Trends Forum guest:

Short of those developments, I fear state universities will continue to end up at the top of Granholm’s cutting ballot for years to come.

(thanks to Linda Burns, who pointed me to George Siemens’ tweet; Michigan capitol photo by David Marvin)

Posted in trends | 2 Comments

21st century American religion: decreasing church membership, rising generational divides

How will religion change in the 21st century?

A recent Gallup poll of American religious practice gives us a fascinating glimpse into future trends, both for society as a whole and education in particular.

The keep point in their report: church membership is trending downwards, especially over the past twenty years.  In fact, there’s a nine point dropoff in just the last six years:

church membership US 1938-2018

(Some remarkable stability from 1938 to 1983!  Something happens around 1984, then things start shaking loose around the millennium.)

It’s confirmation and extension of the Public Religion Research Institute research we tracked in 2017.

Put another way, “[s]ince the turn of the century, the percentage of U.S. adults with no religious affiliation has more than doubled, from 8% to 19%.”  Or: “Three-quarters of Americans, 77%, identify with some organized religion, though that is down from 90% in 1998 through 2000.”  Bit by bit, at an accelerating clip, America is moving down the secularizing path.

Religious belief varies strongly by age.  Unsurprisingly, the older Americans are, the more likely they are to have a religious preference:

religious preference by generation_Gallup 2019

How will this play out over the next several decades?

If these trends continue – declining church affiliation, increasing age gaps – we should expect America to gradually become less religious and more secular, reshaping our culture.  Intergenerational divides may open wider and grow intense.  Imagine, for example, replacing the terms of today’s religious and gender-based culture wars with religious belief.  Perhaps religion will return to playing a key role in our politics and media.

I wrote “if” in the preceding paragraph because the trends might not play out.  There’s room for hundreds of millions of people to change their minds, of course, and aging is often correlated with rising belief.  A new great awakening could sweep younger and middle-aged Americans, perhaps in response to political frustration.  Belief might surge in certain areas or demographics – the rust belt, for example, or among nonwhites as atheism remains a mostly white movement.  New religious movements might catch fire; developments like the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon or the NXIVM story may be signals of a new faith to come.

What does this mean for education?

If the declining religious membership trends keeps on, some religiously-affiliated colleges and universities may experience difficulties enrolling students, as well as attracting faculty and staff.  This could lead some of these campuses to close, seek mergers with different types of institutions, or restructure their affiliations even to the point of secularizing.

The discipline of religious studies, as well as religious topics in other fields (anthropology, history, literature, psychology, etc) may see enrollment decline.  This could lead to program cuts or closures, along with curricular transformation, as departments creatively seek viability.

Animosity towards education may take on a more deeply religious cast, as unbelief and higher ed remain linked.  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Republicans deeply critical of universities and fearful of Godlessness combining the two more closely.

Supporting students may become more challenging, depending on the context.  Think of older faculty and staff with religious beliefs helping irreligious students succeed… or the opposite, as the number of older students grows.  Again, we have the possibility of intergenerational tension.

One final caveat: the Gallup report is national, working at a macro level.  It’s not broken out by anything other than age.  It doesn’t divide up by region, race, or gender.  (For more info on this, check the PRRI study I referenced earlier.) Variations will certainly occur.

(via the excellent Economic Update podcast)

Posted in trends | 4 Comments

Technology trends: on Mary Meeker’s new report

Every year Mary Meeker publishes a slideshow describing her team’s trends analysis.  The focus is technology, especially in a business context.  Impressed by their detail and depth, I’ve covered them frequently (in 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2013), and am eager to carry on with this post.

If you’re new to Meeker, know that this is a very business-oriented presentations.  There’s plenty of analysis about prices, marketing, market share, start-ups, etc., and not so much on culture.  Politically, this research is nearly the direct opposite of Zuboff’s work.  It’s pro-immigrant for business reasons (slides 259ff) and anti-social programs (263). Digital tech, not Medicare for all, will improve health care (273).  Think Wall Street Journal.

Let me pull out some findings which seem especially relevant to the future of education:

More than one half of the human race is online now, which is a momentous milestone (170).  I’ve heard versions of this stat over the past decade, and am not sure why this datapoint is new, or how it was derived, but it’s a useful datapoint.

Mobile continues to conquer the world.  We access the internet through mobile devices more than through desktop and laptop computers (41).  We also spend more time on mobile devices than on tv, for the first time in history (46).

Social media: it’s very interesting to see which platforms are rising and which falling.

Once again, video is leading.  Messaging services are still going.  Twitter is growing slightly.

Other media: podcasting keeps booming, going from 22 million listeners in 2008 to 70 in 2018 (50).  Video also keeps rising, from videoconferencing to livestreaming and recorded gameplay.

Meeker is very bullish on images.  She mentions the technical bases for modern image capture, editing (nice Canva note on 111), and sharing, adding filters, AI interaction, and some light storytelling.  (I disagree with the setting aside of text on 86, but expect to hear others share this sentiment)

Meeker is also bullish on gaming, citing enormous growth in Fortnite, Twitch, and Discord.

Data plays a key role in this report, linked to just about every human enterprise and technology.  Meeker does address rising anxiety over privacy and business models, but seems to see corporations handling it, and civilization evolving.  She calls on us to embrace the open internet, and not so much regulation: “Open Internet = Can Be Messy, But Effective” (201).  The report offers this interesting model for how organizations can integrate data operations:

Economically, the report covers a lot of ground.  I’ll just remind readers that it establishes a lot of development happening around the world, beyond the US.  All kinds of services are popping up and building rapidly. China is the subject of particular attention. (293ff)

The report does address education (233ff).  It argues that online education is growing, citing public universities, MOOCs, and 2U.  Income share agreements appear (slide 245), as do various technologies (Chegg, Quizlet, Remind, gaming (312)). Meanwhile, in line with my research, Meeker finds face to face enrollment to be dropping:


The report also finds that online learning can be less expensive than offline (258), suggesting the former may supplant the latter.

To sum up: nothing shocking, especially for my readers.  But it’s useful data for a range of trends.

Posted in trends | 2 Comments

Following the human tide

Demographics again?  Yes, I keep honing this powerful tool in the futurist’s toolbox.  Demographic analysis sheds a lot of light on the future of society in general, and of education in particular.

Today I’ll touch on a recently published book that might be useful for many readers.  It offers a good account of current changes, forthcoming developments, and how they got that way.

The Human Tide
(Paul Morland, 2019) is an accessible introduction to the demographics of the past two centuries.  It helps us understand how we went from growing our populations to fearing overpopulation to grappling with a population decline instead.

One major theme in the book is a persuasive argument that demographics play a key role in world events. For example, Morland explains the Soviet crisis of the 1980s as driven in part by population trends. (164ff)  He argues that Japan needed a population boom to power its imperial adventure (201) and that 20th century decolonialization was made possible in part by colonial population declines and a childbirth boom among the colonized. (228) The recent Syrian civil war was driven by a youth bulge. (243) Elsewhere, the book sees Islamic fundamentalism as having “direct demographic roots… There is evidence of a link between fertility and religious intensity found in Islam, just as there is in other religions…” (240)

To make this case and to explain how it came about, Morland establishes a narrative framework based on a tidal metaphor, of floods and ebbs. It starts with Britain in the early 19th century, right after Malthus publishes his grim analysis.  After centuries of very slight growth, the British population suddenly started rising, in tandem with economic output, breaking the Malthus framework.  This rising British tide continued into the 20th century, whereupon it transformed into something quite different.

Country after country would experience pretty much the same thing: suddenly growing population, often with economic expansion.  Morland describes this using the neat analogy of a flood followed by an ebb. He dubs this whole process, rather blandly, “the demographic transition”:

A population will stabilize at a higher level once it has experienced growth as it moves from high birth rates and high death rates, through high birth rates and falling death rates, to low birth rates and low death rates. (111)

What caused these huge changes? The flood came about thanks to early modernity. Industrial growth, urbanization, and population expansions worked together, growing a bigger population while feeding it.  In turn, that larger demographic powered economic growth by providing more workers and consumers. (50) Further, a major economic boom can drive an extra baby boom, as with the US in the 1950s. (136) In addition, political and religious tensions can drive higher birth rates, as with Muslims in the Soviet bloc (231) and post-WWII Israel and Palestine (which Morland dubs “competitive breeding”, 249).

After that flood, what brings about the successive ebb? Later modernity.  More precisely, a mix of factors, including better public health and improved medicine, which combine to push infant mortality down. (73) Rising female literacy plays a huge part. (106) So do cultural factors: “later marriage to the very questioning by the LGBT movement of what it means to be a man or woman,” plus feminist movements and the impact of secularism.  Greater access to birth control obviously shaped the ebb as well. (142)

One 20th-century cultural aspect caught my eye, and it’s one we don’t think much about in the 21st. Soviet gender politics depressed births:

The ideal Soviet woman was politically conscious (and therefore, almost by definition, literate), living in a town of city and probably employed in a factory; she was bound to have fewer children than her illiterate peasant mother. (106)

Other than this, government policies can influence births a little bit, but not much, as the example of Soviet bloc Romania shows (188). In fact, that story reveals a libertarian theme in the book: “the human tide is best managed by ordinary human beings themselves and not by their self-appointees engineers.” (218)

I read this book as I do most things, with an eye on the future. What does Morland anticipate, especially as he views “[m]uch about demographic as ‘baked into the future’ and is certain to happen” (274)? In a handy phrase, the human race will become more grey, more green, and less white. (274) We will become more peaceful and suffer less crime; on the flip side, we’ll be less prone to risk taking. (275) Paying for pensions will become a planetary challenge. (276) Greener means that the existence of fewer people, eventually, will give more space to nature, and more people living in cities means some greater efficiencies. (278) Less white: Anglo-Saxon and European population growth is stalling and falling back, along with much of east Asia; in contrast, we’re experiencing a boom in Africa. (279-80) This could lead to more immigration, such as a possible flood of Egyptians into Europe, should that nation’s fragile economy collapse.(235-6)

My audiences and clients have heard all of this from me.  I beat the demographic drum very loudly and steadily, partly because it’s so important, and also because few people want to discuss it (which is interesting).  On an immediate level, Morland’s “transition” model is already starting to alter the student body and the incoming student pipeline.  On another level, we rarely admit that education changes demographics (through educating girls and women, through medical research, through public health), but we play a key role nonetheless.

The Human Tide is useful book, and one my audiences can appreciate, but with one limitation. It is a deeply Anglocentric work, starting with Britain (which is understandable) and never really letting go of the UK. European nations generally receive more attention to closer they are to Britain, and that pattern continues in many ways for the rest of the world. Certain nations are treated far too lightly – namely India, likely the world’s most populous in a few years!  The British model and focus lay too heavily on Morland’s pages.

Once you realize that gap, you can follow up with further reading elsewhere. Otherwise, I commend The Human Tide to anyone interested in education, modern history, and especially the future.

(earlier version posted to Goodreads; thanks to Joshua Kim for the recommendation)

Posted in demographics, reviews | 2 Comments

Concluding thoughts on Surveillance Capitalism

Over the past three months our online book club has been reading Shoshana Zuboff’s important new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.  That’s meant a lot of writing, a heap of blogging, and a great amount of comments from you all, thoughtful readers.

With this post I’d like to share some concluding thoughts.

(Here are our discussions by chapter: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18.  My thanks to thoughtful readers Alan Baily, Noel De Martin, Barbara Fister, John Kellden, Brian Pech, Mark Spradley, Carl Adam Rosenfield, sibyledu, Ken Soto, Vanessa Vaile, and Mark Wilson.)

Generally Zuboff succeeds in sketching out a dystopian business model, one predicated on turning the details of our lives into corporate profit.  This is most famously or notoriously demonstrated by Facebook and Google.  The structures and strategies Surveillance Capitalism lays out are very useful tools, like the kidnap/corner/compete playbook.

Zuboff gives us new ways to think about the digital world in 2019, drawing out an archaeology of its development and pushing back on current understanding.  In one neat move, for example, she takes issue with the famous “you are not the consumer; you are the product” axiom.  Instead, Zuboff would rather we think thusly: “we are the sources of raw-material supply.” (69-70)

The book is mostly analytical, a wide-ranging and deeply probing exploration of the business model.  Developing a solution to surveillance capitalism is a secondary consideration, and not a very inspiring one.  Zuboff has some hopes for creative and popular resistance, and ultimately sees governmental regulation as the best option.  I’m not sure that this is convincing.

To begin with, as Zuboff acknowledges, governments often engage in surveillance that is arguably more terrifying than Facebooks, as they are backed up with laws and armed might.  Many governments also practice the nudging Surveillance Capitalism decries.  Yes, states can and often do two opposing things at the same time, but the tension should be addressed.  Otherwise the argument runs the risk of asking us to appeal to bullies for protection.

Moreover, the politics involved can become challenging, especially in the United States.  This month several Democratic presidential candidates are going after some of Silicon Valley; regulating tech firms could become an epically partisan issue, especially for a Republican party keen to protect and extend big business.  On the other hand, some Republicans, including Trump, are incensed at what they see as FAANG‘s anti-conservative bias.   The Trump administration is also weighing regulatory options against the digital giants.  A leading conservative blogger called for antitrust action. Is a bipartisan consensus possible?

Put another way, can Congress escape Silicon Valley’s lobbying might, or will it be sufficiently captured to not enact anything meaningful?  Further, if Evgeny Morozov is right, as Barbara Fister suggests, and surveillance capitalism is really about capitalism itself, what kind of political organization is available now to respond? Perhaps thee bipartisan possibility I noted above will fall apart as a socialism-interested left wing feuds with Republicans and centrist Democrats alike.   Or, if surveillance capitalism is about extraction, as Zuboff insists, is a better model anti-colonialism, as Vanessa Vaile suggests?  That could lead to an international politics, whereby some other nations oppose Silicon Valley for fomenting an updated, digital colonialism.

Or should we think about this instead as a health care issue, since so many of the privacy  violations Zuboff abhors occur in the body of mind?  If so,  the odds aren’t good, as Noel De Martin observes.  Indeed, surveillance capitalism may have succeeded in implanting itself too deeply in our psyches to be uprooted, as Mark Spradley ponders.

Zuboff_discovery of behavioral surplusFurthermore, the book notes several times that the surveillance capitalism model doesn’t stem entirely from the technology sector.  Indeed, the financial sector played a key role in shaping and driving it (cf Mark Corbett Wilson’s fine comment).  That sector is enormously powerful, both economically and politically.  How can a society and culture oppose its strategy?  Arguably America failed to do so after the 2008 financial disaster (recall Occupy).  Again, political challenges and complexity are rampant on this score.

Shifting from politics to economics, Zuboff would like us to support alternative funding models.  What are they?  Barbara Fister identifies DuckDuckGo and paid(walled) journalism. Noel De Martin points to Netflix as one where we pay for content – although it’s really a hybrid model, as Netflix mines our viewing habits to surface recommendations.

Can other businesses compete by openly resisting surveillance capitalism?  Carl Rosenfeld thinks this might be happening with VPN providers.  Apple has lately made a play for being taken seriously as a pro-privacy actor. Alan Baily notes that Apple makes hardware and might be too far behind Google etc. to catch up.  Perhaps their alleged shift to being a media company will lead them to follow Netflix’s hybrid path.  The computer gaming industry – immense and weirdly absent from Zuboff’s book – largely sells artifacts and services without managing to stalk our inner data-thoughts (except through canny design); Steam is not great at recommendations.

On a different register, I think Age of Surveillance Capitalism fails to understand why so many consumers volunteer to enter the universe of decreased, monetized privacy.  The book compares this business model to military conquest, but doesn’t account well for our conscious embrace of it.  As Ken Soto points out, low- or no-cost services of high quality are quite appealing to consumers.  Think of how Gmail outcompeted email clients, or how Facebook crafted a better social experience than Facebook.  Google Earth, Google Books: these are effective tools without serious competition.  As Nicholas Carr argues (and it’s not often I agree with him),

While Zuboff’s assessment of the costs that people incur under surveillance capitalism is exhaustive, she largely ignores the benefits people receive in return — convenience, customization, savings, entertainment, social connection, and so on. The benefits can’t be dismissed as illusory, and the public can no longer claim ignorance about what’s sacrificed in exchange for them.

I admit to being torn on this in my personal experience.  Despite my dread of their datamining, Amazon’s recommendation system is better than the suggestions I’ll get from 99% of bookstores.   I use many Google tools (Drive, Gmail, Maps, etc) because the price is good and the quality high.  Facebook still gives me a bigger social network than any other platform, no matter how badly Zuckerberg behaves.  Voice activated tools are handy for me when I’m cooking or driving.  Convenience and quality are powerful forces and help enable the age of surveillance capitalism; the titular book needs to account for them, even though that would weaken its rhetorical stance.

Beyond myself, I think the personal experience of many other people helps explain why Facebook, Google et al can get away with this.  You see, Zuboff posits an opposition between a good life with privacy and the bad life after social media, yet that duality doesn’t withstand scrutiny.  Before Web 2.0 many people already lived with many privacy violations.  The world of work can compromise privacy in a variety of ways, from surveilled email to intense bodily scrutiny; actually, as Katie Fitzpatrick points out, Zuboff seems more concerned with leisure than work.  The war on (some) drugs has habituated many Americans to yielded up our bodily fluids to bureaucratic processing.  The many people who serve in or work closely with the military have a very different privacy experience than the ideal one Zuboff holds out.  In fact, the war on terror has systematically degraded American civil liberties.  Even without war, many who would access some public services are long used to opening up their lives to the gaze of civil servants.  Next to any of these, letting Google trawl one’s email to shape some small ads is far less threatening.  If I can slightly misread Blayne Haggart, the book overstates its claims to novelty.

Where does this leave us?

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a powerful book that should be read.  It does feel incomplete, however, like a business book that falls short of politics, or one crafted with a Manichean zeal that misses the nuances of history and daily life.  I recommend it for its utility and the conversations it should start.

Looking ahead, I think Zuboff outlines an unfolding politics.  We should pursue that thinking.

(And many thanks, once more, to the readers in our online book club.)


Posted in book club | Tagged | 1 Comment

Humanity’s next century: an Empty Planet for education?

Where is the human race headed for the next few generations?  What is in store for higher ed if the population bomb turns out to be a dud?

Demographics, demographics, demographics: my audiences know I harp on this topic as a major force reshaping the world as well as higher education.  It’s not a popular theme, however, beyond state governments and some senior academic leaders.  Demographics is a deep and unsettling topic.  It ends up in the margins or is simply ignored for a variety of reasons.

Empty PlanetThat’s why I’m happy to recommend a new book.  Empty Planet (2019) is a powerful, very accessible, and at times very surprising take on changes in the human population.

Why is it surprising? Because for a couple of generations many people dreaded human overpopulation as a planetary challenge of the highest order. As I wrote in 2017,

Back in the 1960s and 70s many people feared overpopulation, and for good reasons. Human population was rising. Serious research, most notably The Limits To Growth (1972; based on a powerful computer simulation), suggested crises to come, ranging from overcrowding to starvation. Science fiction and popular culture echoed this with novels like Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner, 1968), books like The Population Bomb (1968), and movies like Soylent Green (1973) and Z.P.G. (1972).

(I remember clearly reading the liner notes for a piece of electronic-ish music around 1975. I was about eight, and the album cover back described music for an overpopulated future, when the earth was covered by giant buildings, packed tightly with far, far too many humans. I wish that memory was clear enough to include a title or composer.)

Population_BombReaders will have noticed that we did not arrive in such an overcrowded future, despite the appearance of a deplorable drink called Soylent. That’s because, in part, we were terrified of such a scenario, and responded by altering our behaviors.  Other factors kicked in as well.  Together they drove a huge, history-transforming change whose impacts are just starting to appear. Bricker and Ibbitson ably explain this, connecting scholarship with personal stories in very friendly prose.

In brief, Empty Planet describes an ongoing multi-decade, multi-continental shift in human life, whereby we produce fewer and fewer children. A growing number of populations are actually spawning “below replacement level” – i.e., producing fewer offspring than two parents, below two children for every (biological) couple.  This leads to a shrinking population, unless immigration floods in.

This is not a universally held model of unfolding demographics.  Early in the book Bricker and Ibbitson point out a United Nations population projection, which heads in three very different directions.  Either the human race balloons in Population Bomb fashion, or grows more moderately, or actually starts declining.

As the book’s title proclaims, Empty Planet thinks we’re headed for door number three.

Why? The reasons are multiple, including advances in medical science, public health, and the education of girls and women (yes, higher education is helping tamp down the human population’s growth). We could sum this up with the word “modernity.”  In addition, smaller families means fewer demands on fertile people to produce more kids (50; 111-112). Teen pregnancy rates have plummeted in developed nations, a very positive and criminally underappreciated story (95-6). Pop culture now presents growing accounts of interesting lives featuring families with few or no children (135). Female sterilization, increasingly voluntary in nations like Brazil and India, further reduces total fertility (136).

If Bricker and Ibbitson are right, and we head for the UN’s lower projection world, then the implications of this transformation are many.  They are also neither well understood nor commonly discussed, but Empty Planet offers a good starting point.  National leaders can view underpopulation as a security threat, and might not react well, based on historical precedent and some present developments (62). Wars might decline along with the primary war-fighting population, leading to a what Bricker and Ibbitson’s splendidly dub as a “geriatric peace.” (232) Politics can lag behind reality, as, for example, Latinx immigration into the US has declined for more than a decade, as those nations have seen their fertility rates fall, but, alas, Trump (149). Carbon emissions may start to decline once total population turns around (230). Some nations will have to deal with a drop or collapse in their working-age, tax-paying population.

Beyond economics and politics, cultures should change as well.  Creativity and invention may slow down, as, in the authors’ words, “it’s hard to innovate when your society is old” (83).  Entire cultures and languages may fade away, if they dwindle below certain levels (198, 205).

And migration politics become difficult if not heinous. Bricker and Ibbitson are unabashedly pro-immigrant, urging under-reproducing societies to more generously welcome populations from elsewhere (148, 209).

In the rest of the developed world, principally the United States and Canada, immigration will become the sole driver of population growth starting sometime in the 2020s. (151)

In response to this demographic change, some nations may try to encourage more reproduction. Bricker and Ibbitson are skeptical about the efficacy of such moves (examples appear from Sweden and Singapore), finding them expensive, politically fragile, and actually accomplishing little (72).  (The United States has largely been quiet on this score.  I’m tracking any signs of such encouragement closely – for example.)

What does Empty Planet‘s world mean for education?

To begin with, primary and secondary schools (pre-K-12 in the US) will face shrinking student bodies.  A positive aspect is that we could see student-teacher ratios decline, unless things change.  Unfortunately for classes, things are likely to change, as local and state governments, eager for any cost savings, turn to cutting classes, teachers, programs, and schools.

On the post-secondary level the traditional-age student (18-24 years old) pipeline will keep narrowing, year after year, pressuring colleges and universities that serve that population to compete ever more intensely.  This will make inter-campus collaboration more difficult, and help drive institutional mergers and closures.  Many colleges and universities will seek to pivot towards adult learners, which can be a difficult process without guaranteed success.  Campuses focusing on traditional-age undergrads will face an increasingly uphill battle to thrive or survive, and constitute a shrinking – minority – niche within the overall postsecondary education sector.

Further, Empty Planet implies hard times for public higher ed, at least in the United States, because state governments will have a harder time funding that sector.  Many states will see their health care spending grow every year, due to older folks’ greater use of medical services, unless and until health care financing is massively overhauled.  Those same state governments will also have to spend more for pensions as retirees live longer.  Financially, unless states win tax windfalls, they’ll probably be more interested in cutting public higher ed funding.

(There are many political ways this could go, of course.  Humanitarian disasters await, if states start cutting their health care and senior support mechanisms, for example)

(There are more grim politics available.  We could see conservative calls for more (white) women to have more babies, and such calls link themselves to an old right agenda of keeping women in the home rather than the workforce, not to mention anti-abortion policies.  From another angle, anti-immigrant sentiment could target colleges and universities far more than it has so far, if academia becomes increasingly multinational and academic leaders publicly call for more immigration.)

On the other hand, if geriatric peace breaks out and the United States is able to cut down defense spending, perhaps a “geriatric peace dividend” will be able to be spent on higher education.  That might be one way to better support poorer students, and perhaps to bring back tenure track faculty lines.

Nations experiencing the most rapid aging patterns may decide to more aggressively recruit students internationally, especially from nations further down the demographic developmental track – i.e., central and sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, and a handful of others.  The global higher education market will keep expanding, both in terms of face-to-face travel and online teaching.

Academic research may change slightly.  If Empty Planet is correct, there will be a crying need to study cultures and cultural artifacts before they disappear as their supporting populations dwindle.  Linguistics, anthropology, history, political science, comparative literature, environmental studies come to mind as disciplines that might extend their work here.  Study abroad might include a cultural extinction element, too.

Although I do recommend this book highly, I have some questions and concerns. The point about innovation and age: have the authors received charges of agism? To what extent are voluntary reductions in child-bearing the province of the wealthy and well-educated, leaving out the poor and rural? The authors touch on this (122), but I’d like to see more. I’m curious about the authors’ thoughts on the role of media and agency, since they see South American tv driving women’s decisions there, but find some Indian women immune to Bollywood’s romances (171).

Once more: an important and engaging book for our time.

I’ll follow up on this theme with more futures work.

(early draft of this first posted to Goodreads)

Posted in demographics, reviews | 6 Comments

Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 17 and 18

Our online book club is coming to the end of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapters 17: The Right to Sanctuary, and 18: A Coup from Above.

Age Of Surveillance_coverIn this post I’ll summarize the chapters, then add some observations and questions.   I’ll also recap what readers have shared.

How can you respond?  You, dear reader, can respond through whichever technological means make the most sense to you.  You can comment on each blog post.  You can also write on Twitter, LinkedIn, your own blog, or elsewhere on the web.  (If that sounds strange, here are some examples of previous readings, complete with reader responses.)

Many Zuboff-oriented stories appeared in the news over the past few days.  Google complained about Apple, raising the specter of privacy as a luxury, and Apple  responded.  The Canadian parliament summoned Facebook’s Zuckerberg and Sanders to appear; the Facebook leaders refused.  A Washington Post column complained about iPhones supporting surveillance.  The same paper reports that the federal Justice Department and FTC have strategized antitrust moves against Amazon and Google.  Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign has made a key theme of going after big tech companies.


Chapter 17 (The Right to Sanctuary) concerns ways of opposing surveillance capitalism.  It begins by posing the idea of sanctuary as a way of thinking about privacy.  Zuboff sketches the concept’s history “as an antidote to power since the beginning of the human story” (478).  In United States federal law the Fourth Amendment appears as a related thing, offering Americans protection from unjust search; however, this tends to cover public (governmental) actions, leaving private (corporate) actors free (480).  Europe’s recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law offers some potential protection against surveillance capitalism, but Zuboff isn’t sure how it will play out.  Something akin to America’s freedom of information laws might help, letting users get into what Zuboff has called a “shadow text”: the non-public-facing backend data about users maintained by Google, Facebook, etc. (485)

Zuboff offers examples of anti-SC efforts that she finds to fall under a header of popular resistance, starting with the Austrian nonprofit None of Your Business and art projects, such as this one:

Todays selfie is tomorrows biometric profile

The chapter then adds a host of technical fixes and projects, including:

signal-blocking phone cases, false fingerprint prosthetics that prevent your fingertips from being “used as a key to your life,” LED privacy visors to impede facial-recognition cameras, a quilted coat that blocks radio waves and tracking devices, a scent diffuser that releases a metallic fragrance when an unprotected website or network is detected on any of your devices, a “serendipitor app” to disrupt any surveillance “that relies on subjects maintaining predictable routines,” a clothing line called “Glamouflage” featuring shirts covered with representations of celebrity faces to confuse facial-recognition software, anti-neuroimaging surveillance headgear to obstruct digital invasion of brain waves, and an anti-surveillance coat that creates a shield to block invasive signals. Chicago artist Leo Selvaggio produces 3-D–printed resin prosthetic masks to confound facial recognition.  (489-490)

However, these acts are not enough (491).

Chapter 18 is titled “A Coup from Above”, but is also called “Conclusion” in my edition, and does try to sum up the book.  It offers three concepts for readers to recall when summarizing surveillance capitalism:

[I]t insists on the privilege of unfettered freedom and knowledge. Second, it abandons long-standing organic reciprocities with people. Third, the specter of life in the hive betrays a collectivist societal vision sustained by radical indifference and its material expression in Big Other.(495)

For the first point (knowledge) Zuboff makes a case that surveillance capitalists undo Hayek’s theory of markets being ultimately unknowable to humans.  For the second (reciprocity), the author finds SC companies undoing fundamental social relations by denying back-and-forth with users, sidestepping feedback and negotiation.  To the third, a vision appears of humanity crushed into a digital hive.  Ultimately, Zuboff links surveillance capitalism’s rise to a global crisis of democracy and calls for a popular awakening.  “No more!” is the book’s final cry.


  1. What forms might popular opposition to surveillance capitalism take?
  2. Is it possible that other businesses might develop anti-SC business models, leading to surveillance capitalism being out-competed in the marketplace?
  3. At this point in the book, how convinced are you of Zuboff’s model?
  4. Are governments good allies against SC, or have they been compromised?

And that’s it for the book!  Next week we’ll share some conclusions and extra notes.

Help yourself to our reading, with all content assembled under this header: .  You can find the reading schedule here.

Posted in book club | Tagged | 6 Comments

On the empowered student: thoughts from an international team

Last year a bunch of us started up project FOEcast.  The idea was to think of new ways of understanding the future of education and technology.

Several projects have emerged from that impetus, and today I’m delighted to introduce one of them: a curated set of reports on empowered learners.

For the next month I’ll introduce each of these reports.  We’ll also host video conversations with each author, so they can say more about their thinking, and you all can ask them questions.

First up is “The Transformation of Education: Are We Reaching The Tipping Point?” by John D’Arcy (Twitter, LinkedIn), Deputy Director of the Western Academy of Beijing.  D’Arcy explores ways that institutionally conservative schools are experimenting with empowering learners and developing student-centric pedagogy.

We will hold a Zoom discussion to discuss John’s paper and the topic on June 5th, 7:30 am Beijing time.  Please join us live, or share your questions here.

Posted in research topics | Tagged | 2 Comments

American college and university enrollment declines again – for the 8th year in a row

The total number of students enrolled in American higher education declined this spring, according to new NSCRC data.  For the eighth year in a row.

This is vital data for the nation’s education sector.

Let’s break down the details.

Here’s the difference between this past spring’s classes and 2018’s: “In spring 2019, overall postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.7 percent from the previous spring”.  A slight tick down.

The public sector has been hit a bit harder than privates: “Taken as a whole, public sector enrollment (2-year and 4-year combined) declined by 1.9 percent this spring.”

Community colleges and especially for-profits continue to suffer.  Public four-year campuses also lost some students, while, in contrast, the private, nonprofit sector looks like the only bright spot:
enrollment 2015-2019…except for this: “Enrollments increased 3.2 percent at four-year private nonprofit institutions, but this increase was largely due to the recent conversion of a large for-profit institution to nonprofit status.”  Oh.  I’m not sure what the increase was left after that’s accounted for.  Derek Newton thinks that without that conversion (which he ascribes to Grand Canyon University) “enrollments at private nonprofit schools is flat.”

These declines concern undergraduate programs.  In contrast, graduate programs are still a bright spot when it comes to enrollment, showing solid growth across the board:

spring 2019 enrollment details

Gender: the “feminization” of higher ed continues, as per this data.  7,361,832 people identifying as men were enrolled in spring 2019, a decline of -2.8% compared to 2018’s spring term.  In contrast, 10,180,277 students registered as women attended, and their year-by-year decline was less: -0.8%.  By my math women constitute 58% of higher education enrollment, with men taking up just 42% of classes (Voice of America concurs).  That balance occurred across all sectors.

Demographics: we may be seeing early signs of the youth population dropping in this report.  The 18-to-24 student body declined -2.4%, while the over-24s only went down -0.8%.

Geography: there is some interesting regional variation. Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Hawaii, and Kansas all lost more than 4% since spring 2018.  North Dakota lost 4.5%, which is odd, since they’ve been enjoying some positive youth population growth.  In contrast, only a few states enjoyed a rise above 3%: Colorado, Georgia, and Utah.  Weirdly, New Hampshire experienced a 9.9% rise; I suspect that’s entirely due to online enrollment in SNHU.

Scale: according to Forbes’ take on the report, small institutions are not doing well.  Instead, “[a]mong private nonprofit colleges, the enrollment increase was accounted for entirely by larger schools – those with 10,000 or more students.”

If we look at this as a longterm trend, we taught 17,542,109 students in spring of this year. Based on that datum, I estimate an 8.18% decline since 2013, when American post-secondary education enrolled 19,105,651 .

Some reflections:

  • The for-profit sector continues to collapse.  Every year for nearly a decade it’s taken hard hits.  Even under a pro-for-profit Department of Ed, this sector is losing badly.  But notice that the students that leave for-profits aren’t heading elsewhere, generally.  They’re just exiting post-secondary education.  Despite some people jubilating over the fall of predatory schools, or the dismissal that for-profit isn’t really higher ed, this is not a story with a good ending so far if we think all Americans should get some college.
  • Community colleges continue to see enrollment declines.  That’s because they are traditionally counter-cyclical to employment.  Some will dismiss the CC shrinkage as unimportant, despite it being the largest sector in American higher ed, the one doing the most with the least, and the one receiving less media attention than any others. I commend readers to Susan Muaddi Darraj’s recent column calling for us to pay greater respect to community colleges.
  • As this continues, expect greater pressure on high schools to increase graduation numbers.  Also, for colleges and universities to work on retention and graduation.
  • Administrations may cite this data as they contemplate cuts, queen sacrifices, mergers, and closures.  “We are suffering from the general, national trend of enrollment decline…”
  • How many campuses will consider a pivot away from undergraduate and towards graduate programs?
  • Some will speak of this in terms of bubbles or higher ed being overbuilt.  US News and World Report concludes that higher ed now has “too many slots compared to the number of applicants.”
  • We might see people argue that this data indicates that tuition and debt are actually just fine.  Back to Derek Newton:

we can further dispel the popular notion that factors such as student debt and climbing tuition prices are impacting consumer/enrollment choices. Clearly, they are not. What’s happening instead is that enrollment at the least expensive option in higher education, and by a ton, the public community colleges, is down. At the same time, enrollment is flat or slightly up at the most expensive quality options – the prestigious private and nonprofit liberal arts schools.

  • We can also expect conservatives to cite this enrollment data as proof that higher ed is flawed.

In 2013 I came up with the peak higher education scenario.  The Wall Street Journal echoed that language this week, stating that “overall numbers have been falling since peak enrollment during the early 2010s…”  I really don’t want this scenario of mine to prove accurate.

Posted in enrollment | 3 Comments

The next human nature: reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, chapters 15 and 16

Age Of Surveillance_cover

Our online book club is reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and we’re approaching the end. Today we’re covering chapters 15, The Instrumentation Collective, and 16: Of Life in the Hive.

In this post I’ll summarize the chapters, then add some observations and questions.   I’ll also recap what readers have shared.

How can you respond?  You, dear reader, can respond through whichever technological means make the most sense to you.  You can comment on each blog post.  You can also write on Twitter, LinkedIn, your own blog, or elsewhere on the web.  (If that sounds strange, here are some examples of previous readings, complete with reader responses.)

Discussion over the past week ranged over the entire reading so far.  Referring to the first chapters, Mark Corbett Wilson offered a Californian perspective on Silicon Valley and finance capital.  Mark William Spradley raised a good question about a key principle set from chapter six, one which seems to be missing.

One reader, Laura Gibbs, observed on Twitter:


In relevant news: a new study finds that nudges (cf chapter 10) might backfire. Several elected officials are developing laws targeting social media data-mining practices. (thanks to Nancy Margaret Saleeby) Amazon has filed a patent for tracking and responding to user emotions.


Chapter 15, The Instrumentation Collective, portrays Alex Pentland as a major thinker in surveillance capitalism.  Zuboff describes Pentland as the theorist behind the practitioners, and relies on a reading of his Social Physics (2015).  Five key principles appear: reshaping human behavior for the greater good, replacing politics with central planning, a reliance on social pressure, applying “utopistics,” and reducing individuality.  (431ff)

Pentland doesn’t stand alone.  Instead,

Pentland “completes” Skinner, fulfilling his social vision with big data, ubiquitous digital instrumentation, advanced mathematics, sweeping theory, numerous esteemed coauthors, institutional legitimacy, lavish funding, and corporate friends in high places without having attracted the worldwide backlash, moral revulsion, and naked vitriol once heaped on Harvard’s outspoken behaviorist.(418)

One key detail: while Pentland outlines a major digital-social enterprise, “[h]e never defines this “we” [in charge of it], which imposes an us-them relationship, introducing the exclusivity of the shadow text and its one-way mirror. It is an omission that haunts his text.” (430)

There is a clear academic connection here:

More than fifty of Pentland’s doctoral students have gone on to spread the instrumentarian vision in top universities, in industry research groups, and in thirty companies in which Pentland participates as cofounder, sponsor, or advisor. Each one applies some facet of Pentland’s theory, analytics, and inventions to real people in organizations and cities. (417-418)

Chapter 16: Of Life in the Hive looks for signs on an emerging surveillance order.  Zuboff sees traces of it (“the next human nature,” 461) in the addictive nature of mobile devices, casinos, and computer games. People’s sense of their self and relationship alters, becoming more grounded in digital networks.

One key psychological problem appears:

the more the need for the “others” is fed, the less able one is to engage the work of self-construction. So devastating is the failure to attain that positive equilibrium between inner and outer life that Lapsley and Woodbury say it is “at the heart” of most adult personality disorders.(456)

And a political problem also appears:

people—especially, though not exclusively, young people—now censor and curate their real-world behavior in consideration of their own online networks as well as the larger prospect of the internet masses. (472)

My favorite passage from this week’s reading:

Facebook’s leadership appears to have realized only gradually that the button could transform the platform from a book into a blizzard of mirrors, a passive read into an active sea of mutual reflections that would glue users to their news feeds. (457)


  1. What is the role of governments in maintaining surveillance capitalism?
  2. Pentland argues that most people will enjoy living within surveillance capitalism, appreciating its benefits and deeming them worthy of the costs.  What’s your take?
    For society, the hope is that we can use this new in-depth understanding of individual behavior to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of industries and governments. For individuals, the attraction is the possibility of a world where everything is arranged for your convenience… (429)
  3. At one point Zuboff criticizes Pentland for supporting unannounced surveillance (“that the continuous pervasive collection of human behavioral data could succeed only when conducted outside the boundaries of human awareness, thus eliminating possible resistance …” (424) – but doesn’t this also reduce the chances of users changing behavior when aware of being observed?
  4. Are there any other connections between surveillance capitalism and gaming, beyond the former learning addiction techniques from the latter?
  5. How else does academia participate in SC?

Next week we will look into chapters 17, The Right to Sanctuary, and 18: A Coup from Above. After that, we’ll get to the conclusion and wrap things up.

Help yourself to our reading, with all content assembled under this header: .  You can find the reading schedule here.

Posted in book club | Tagged | 3 Comments