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.
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.
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:
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.
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 Massachusetts, Connecticut and Wisconsin. A community college leader asks us to rethink higher education for a future without growth.
Notice 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 this. The 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.