On the solstice, dark thoughts for 2018

Today is the winter solstice.  It is the longest night of the year, for those of us on Earth’s northern hemisphere.  In that hemisphere’s northern country, where I live, it can also be a day of cold, snow, and ice, depending on weather and global warming’s progress, but the great darkness gives everything an especially gloomy cast.

We rise before sunrise and watch the night fall before dinner.  Sunlight is weak and scarce, like a kind of intermission for the real show of shadows.  You can imagine what might come next after this night, the darkness winning beyond the solstice, gradually overcoming the sun, choking the daylight right out.  As Neil Gaiman has Loki explain in Sandman  (1989-1996):

You can’t trust Loki, of course.  But it’s a popular vision nonetheless.  As Byron imagined in 1816:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face…

There’s a complex heritage of cultural responses to this moment.  There are celebrations against the dark, very human protests against the natural order: drinking, bonfires, eating, gift giving.  This is the ancient architecture beneath Yule, Saturnalia, and Christmas.

As a futurist I want to embrace this moment so I can plumb the dark possibilities for what’s to come.  Yes, we will rage against the dying of the light as well, but for today, for this post, I want to face the negative head on.  To sit with the gloom.  To respect it.  To take it seriously.

Thinking about what my research has addressed this year, building on more than a decade of further work, I can look ahead to what could unfold that makes us shiver against the shadowy, rising cold.

tl;dr version? Globally, humanity is getting used to a digital world that’s drastically unequal, spoiled by sociopathic trolls, often unreliable, increasingly expensive, thoroughly surveilled by states and firms, and sometimes censored at multiple levels.  We’re growing into a caste system in America, and higher ed is completely complicit.  Indeed, academia plays a key role in producing, reproducing, and policing the caste system.  Colleges and universities are shrinking and getting more expensive, bloating a massive student debt load into the future.

sunset _ Darcy Norman

Let’s dive more deeply into the dark future.  Don’t look away.  For this post hold onto your optimism and see just how far these negative trends extend.  It might be hard to read.

I have written extensively about rising economic inequality and its implications for higher education.  We seem to be entering a new version of the 19th century’s Gilded Age – and while it’s one thing for left wing thinkers to say this, it’s another when a Swiss Bank agrees.  Those economic divides are increasingly sorting out the American population at the levels of cities, towns, and neighborhoods, building up social walls along economic lines.  We also sort our living arrangements strongly by educational attainment.

These divides play out across our shared lives. The Panama and Paradise Papers have shown how free the richest are to avoid or simply violate laws in order to preserve and grow their wealth.  Powerful corporations openly warp federal policy to their ends now, even leading to thousands of deaths.  On the flip side, remember than escalating inequality can mean growing numbers of poor people, while boosting the wealth of the richest.  As the rapidly expanding Dollar General store’s CEO says, “The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer.”  We now discuss these divides in terms of class; perhaps our next vocabulary will be that of caste.

Inequality keeps hitting education. Our institutions are increasingly unequal, with an elite soaring far from the rest as state funding of public higher ed remains embarrassingly low. Our faculty are increasingly unequal, as tenure shrinks and adjunctification dominates. Our book club read Sara Goldrick-Rab’s essential Paying the Price, which powerfully made the case for the economic suffering of the poorest students.  Hit by family challenges, textbook costs, taking classes while working long hours, a whole swath of students is effectively undersupported by our postsecondary system.  We’ve seen the way that higher ed deepens class divides acknowledged or even celebrated.  Inequality’s rise is making us devote more attention not to the poorest, but to the most wealthy.  To some powerful degree education reproduces and deepens economic divides.

In 2018 that simply seems likely to continue.

into the darkness

Politically, America is more divided that I’ve ever experienced it in my lifetime (born 1967).  Democrats and Republicans fight each other with great intensity, a struggle magnified by media old and new, and given extra sharpness by a president that is, as best, a mix of reality tv and Italy’s worst leader in modern times.  Right wing extremists have crept out of the woodwork with violence and media fervor.  Political divides now deeply shape how Americans view higher education.

Demographically, America keeps aging, like many other OECD countries, except for poor white people, who are now dying younger from “deaths of despair“.   For example, in Wisconsin, “nearly 95 percent of total population growth in Wisconsin will be age 65 and older by 2040, while those of working age (18-64) will increase less than half a percent.”  Internationally, “youth numbers are shifting from richer and middle-income countries to poorer ones”.  Domestically, the midwest and northeast keep losing young people:

high school grads in 2031_Hechinger after WICHE

That trend of rising median age has finally elicited calls for people to make more babies.  I fear the kinds of politics and cultural developments that may result from this – i.e., encouraging women to leave school and/or work, increased pressure on birth control.

In American higher ed, we keep growing tuition and student debt.  Debt is so large that it seems to be damaging parts of the economy.

One of the most powerful trends in education is that enrollment continues to decline.  The most recent data has the number of students taking classes shrinking for the sixth year in a row (why are so few people talking about this?).  The Trump administration’s increased anti-immigrant stance seems likely to depress international student numbers in the future.  Again, recall just how dependent the supermajority of colleges and universities are on tuition revenue.  If there are fewer students, either tuition will rise (again), or budgets will be cut, or both.  Looking ahead?

“This suggests further declines to come over all in the years ahead, which will continue to present planning challenges for institutions and policy makers seeking to adapt to new economic and demographic realities…”

Related to this, colleges and universities continue to perform what I’ve called the queen sacrifice.  Facing strong economic pressures, some administrations choose to shrink and remix curriculum, axing faculty and staff.  The humanities tend to be hit especially hard.  If that’s not dire enough, some institutions have decided to close their doors completely: in 2017, they were in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Indiana. A Michigan school killed its undergraduate program entirely.  Others have simply aired the idea in public, as with some Pennsylvanian public universities.  Mergers are in the air, as in MassachusettsConnecticut and Wisconsin.  A community college leader asks us to rethink higher education for a future without growth.

lightningNotice how many of these are in “flyover country”, which is where most automation lives, although people rarely mention that.  Notice, too, how many are in the midwest and northeast.  There are persistent and powerful economic and demographic reasons for that.

Let’s imagine a higher education landscape in 2018 with fewer students.  Fewer faculty and staff.  Fewer campuses.  Think of it as sectoral shrinkage.

In terms of educational technology, We opposed the end of net neutrality to no avail.  I haven’t seen much evidence that higher education will see restoring net neutrality as priority for 2018.

Elsewhere within ed tech, the professional development world was stunned by the New Media Consortium’s sudden self-liquidation.  Things are still cloudy and mysterious here.  Is the association world more fragile than it once seemed?  If we reconsider what associations are for, will we cut back on them?  Is that sector also due to shrink?

Technology as a whole seems to be racing towards some cyberpunk dystopia.  Our book club’s reading of Cathy O’Neil’s important Weapons of Math Destruction demonstrated just how bad data analytics and automation can get in terms of punishing society’s marginalized population: people of color, women, and especially the poor.  Criticism of technology and its leading companies is widespread now, including within the tech world, but those companies continue to grow.  They have strengthened their verticals, making their stacks stronger and more deeply embedded in our lives.  They can screw up terribly, and yet we remain within their embrace.

Philippine and Chinese politics offer examples whereby governments use a variety of digital strategies to attain and expand power: trolling, censorship, a social media panopticon, even gamification.  The United States FCC ended net neutrality, opening the way for internet service providers (ISPs) to, at the very least, ramp up prices and slow down speeds, if not actively balkanizing the internet still further or even censoring access to digital content.

Technology seems to benefit from and exacerbate income and wealth inequality.  The Patreon debacle might be a small example of thisThe digital divide’s persistence is a much larger and importance instance.

One vision of where robotics, AI, and data analytics could go involves low-cost automated assassination.

In a recent newsletter, Audrey Watters opined thusly: “We’re not helpless. But we are pretty fucked.”

A dark world.  A dark set of trends. Let’s see where those shadows take us for the next year.

Imagine a technology world that’s more intrusive, more prone to failure, and more powerful.  We access the internet in ways that compromise our privacy, make us vulnerable to threats, and divide us from each other.

The rich accelerate away from us, inhabited an increasingly separate world of luxury and secure power.  The rest of us sort carefully by class, as well as education race, all intertwined in constructing the rudiments for a caste system to last beyond 2018.

American demographics could lead to economic pressure on the most rapidly aging areas.  They could also elicit pro-natalist politics and cultural movements with grim echoes of the past.

Education is thoroughly implicated in this.  In 2018 we could see the richest schools peel away from the rest, and most of higher ed rededicate itself to courting and supporting the elite.  We will contribute to the great sifting of the population, and the construction of a caste system’s foundations.   Our tuition will keep rising and debt soar towards mortgage levels, with the poorest and otherwise marginalized struggling to keep up.  Several colleges and universities may close, while others merge, and many more cut programs, faculty, and staff.  Professional associations could shrink.

This is a dark place, this 2018 to be.  Take this gloomy vision seriously.  Don’t shudder and thrust it aside.  Today is the solstice, the longest dark we’ve got.  In a little while you can light fires, whoop and make merry.  For this moment take the risk to look deeply into the shadows for what they can teach us.

darkness_Gerben van Heijningen

(photos by D’Arcy Norman, Susan Simon, Larry Johnson, and Gerben van Heijningen)

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17 Responses to On the solstice, dark thoughts for 2018

  1. ellenandjim says:

    I can’t say “like,” rather I agree.

  2. Very difficult to feel optimistic these days.

  3. Tatiana Goodwin says:

    While this is dark (and accurate, so far as it goes) I do see reason to be positive. I will say that the trampling of the poor along with shoving more and more of the populace within that classification has been done so brazenly and so hamhandedly that there is now a focusing outrage smelting itself into tools of change.

    This is us, all of us, except for the very very wealthy of which even jetsetting Wall Street types are not really part of. And not only are there far more “us” than them but they are beholden to us. We depend on each other, sure…but it is the very rich who have cadres of chauffeurs and au pairs and groundskeepers and maids and PAs and all that lot.

    They will need to figure out, when the outrage simmers to beyond blood heat, just how to keep their staff from penetrating their vulnerabilities. The pampered entitled classes will not suddenly take care of their own kids, never mind their compounds…but that means each and every one of them who flaunts their haves in a nation of have-note will have targets painted on them and theirs.

    Some of the rich have already been warning their peers to proceed with caution but I rather like the irony of Darth Vacant possibly overseeing a rebirth of the United States where we finally set our lucre-loaded locusts heads rolling and we finally join the rest of the developed world in things like universal health care and heavily subsidized higher education and speedy internet, with a generous dollop of boosted infrastructure besides.

    To follow the metaphor of the solstice this is when we have the deepest and darkest and longest night…and from here we simply need to band together and protect each other long enough to see the sun rule again.

  4. maulett says:

    Hi Bryan,

    Just wanted to say how much I appreciated your post today. You took advantage of the dark day to identify many of the disturbing trends that are facing our nation’s educational systems. Indeed, it is critically important to “sit with the gloom. To respect it. To take it seriously”.

    Ezra Klein, one of the brains and voices behind Vox Media, got me thinking about the deep problems that arise simply because of one simple issue. Humans seem to lack the capacity for the type of tragic imagination required to even conceive of the depths to which our societies can fall and crumble. It was true in Europe in the mid 1930s, and at countless other places and times in history. We seemingly lack the capacity to imagine things getting as bad as they eventually get, even though every sign is in front of us. I’m with Ezra in believing that it’s always true, but it doesn’t matter until the failure to imagine the deplorable is what allows the deplorable to occur. Without the ability to conceive of the genuinely terrible things that could occur, we lack the motivation (the “why”) necessary to motivate the actions necessary to prevent their occurrence.

    So thank you for the sobering solstice message. I genuinely believe dark messages like this are an essential element to ensuring a better future, and your execution was beautiful because you didn’t poke the badger. You didn’t say that all was lost, just that here are the trends that are genuinely troubling. Excellent!

    Best Wishes, Mark

    P.S. Have you checked out the web browser Brave ? They’re doing some rad work on privacy, and the platform is designed to disable marketing and user tracking. Users can support their favorite content creators directly within the system. It’s extremely cool, much faster since it isn’t loading all those advertisements, and much safer in terms of privacy. Worth checking out, and if it gains the adoption I suspect and they hope for, you may want to monetize your blog and youtube channel with them.

    >

    • Thank you for the thoughtful response, maulett .

      I’m not sure I agree with Klein, as usual. Many of my Democratic friends are frantic with Wiemar fears. They seem to visualize that depth quite clearly.

      Will try Brave –

  5. App Accessibility Experiences in Higher Education says:

    Your 2018 predictions sound like a continuation of traveling down more huge, rock-filled roads. May we all meet the challenges and obstacles of 2018 with fortitude, integrity and compassion.

  6. ted newcomb says:

    Embrace the chaos….

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    Leonard Cohen (Anthem)

  7. One could darker and say it’s gotta get really really bad before it gets better.

    As dire as all this reads, I’d say on some nebulous scale of “normalcy” or “functioning” society, while at a low amplitude, we are still fluctuating about a mean.

    From my geology schooling I draw upon the ideas of change over time being very unchanged for long periods, and then short periods of intense disruption, not the Clayton Christensen kind, we are talking mass extinctions, asteroid impacts, climactic upheavals. Or take river systems out here in the west where the terrain provides canyons and such; a river trip down the Colorado River is long periods of still calm floating with short bursts of energy dissipated in rapids.

    The last world wide societal disruptions have been what? World Wars? the Depression? It’s been a while.

    Significant change happens in dealing with crises? Maybe we should dial in an asteroid or invading evil alien warships?

    I sure don’t know, I’m no futurist. But it seems to work in the movies!

    • I think you’re quite right, Alan. When people tell me “2017 was the worst year ever!” I have a hard time not responding with “how about 1941? or any year in the Middle Ages?” etc.

      The thing about stability then quick change is anticipating the latter from within the former.

  8. There’s more than one answer to a challenge. For example, you raise the specter of the push to increase the birth rate. Your fears are that it will lead to pushing women out of the workforce and clamping down on contraceptives. But there’s also the chance that the response will instead be to provide paid parental leave and lowering the cost of quality child care. One of the drivers for the lower birth rate is the fact that many women are choosing to put of child bearing until later in life, and choosing to have fewer children as a result. Arguably this is the result of the feminist movement in the 70’s when women forced their way out of the home and into the workplace and for the rights to contraception. The realities of the corporate and education worlds have been slow to adapt to that. Women (and men) who take time out of their career for parenting purposes are penalized professionally and discouraged from doing so currently. Compulsory (and tax funded) educations still looks a lot like it did at the turn of the last century, and evolved in the era when women didn’t work outside of the home much and the salaries of the average worker meant they didn’t have to. Pushing women back out of the workforce won’t happen, because corporations don’t want to lose the productivity gains of having them in the labor force, so instead there will be other more progressive ways of supporting families.

    There’s one other possible way that corporations could in their pursuit of self-interest alter the nightmares ahead. If corporations invest strongly in on the job training, they’ll be able to cut into the perception that college is the only path to a profession. Right now they have little interest in doing so because they bear none of the costs of developing talent, and have successfully shifted that cost onto the worker. I suspect some of this is fallout from the GI Bill which made it increasingly more acceptable to expect and demand a degree, but the net effect of making a degree more and more a prerequisite to employment has let them shift the costs of worker development. If it goes too far, and the cost of education gets to be too high, we may (and perhaps already are with things like coding camps and experiments in paying people to not go to college) see a larger proportion of young adults skipping the financial burdens and increasing the proportion of the labor pool that does not have a degree. Combined with the apparently ever growing need for higher skilled workers, some employers may choose to flip the formula, and provide skill development for the specific skills they need in exchange for a worker signing a long term contract or accept lower wages for skilled work than others. One industry already does this – the military. If others do so, it becomes an acceptable alternative and a pressure release valve on the higher education cost inflation. Of course, this will have other major ramifications to the higher education industry, but that’s a different nightmare.

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