On being a futurist

Campus Technology just published an article of mine about my futures work and methods.  I introduce trend analysis, environmental scanning, scenarios, and science fiction, then tie it all together with practical tips for campus technology offices.

I admit to loving the mad image they led off with:

Campus Technology article illustration

More soberly, I like what they did with the FTTE trends map:

FTTE chart, Campus Technology edit

Thank you, Campus Tech team, for your work.

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The 21st century is a new Gilded Age observes Swiss bank, who should know

What does the world look like when the superrich take off from the rest of us?  A new study by Swiss banking giant UBS gives us a glimpse.

UBS has been conducting a regular survey of billionaires for some time.  These reports aren’t about the 1%, but the 0.0001%.   That’s 1,550 people, according to the paper, and a good amount of data.

I’ll pull out some findings that seem especially noteworthy for those of us looking into the future of education.

They describe our time as a new Gilded Age UBS openly refers to our era as a Second Gilded Age.  They use that term repeatedly: “The past 35 years have been a period of extraordinary wealth creation by billionaires. Only the ‘Gilded Age’ at the beginning of the 20th Century bears any comparison.”  Elsewhere, “The world is in a second ‘Gilded Age’, comparable to the first ‘Gilded Age’ at the beginning of the 20th Century.”

Think about it.  This isn’t a left-wing Sanders/Occupy supporter talking.  This is a Swiss bank.  The “Gilded Age” term is being normalized.  I’m old enough to remember when saying so would have been the sign of a crank. (If you’d like to learn more about the First Gilded Age, start here.)

The Bosses of the Senate

Wild idea from 1889: that the superrich have a lot of power over Congress

Billionaires made a lot more money than anyone else in 2016 They had a good year: “Globally, [their] total wealth grew by 17%, or USD892 billion, from USD5.1 trillion to USD6.0 trillion.” How does that compare to non-billionaires?  “This continued the long-term trend of billionaire outperformance that was twice the 8.5% rise in the MSCI AC World Index, and far more than the 5.8% nominal GDP growth figure”.  For the rest of us, at least in the US, wages rose about 3.3% that year.  So this group is not only ultra-rich, but are getting ultra-richer faster than anyone else is getting merely rich or just growing.

They are more transnational Observers have noted the uberrich tend to be transnational, rather than rooted in one country.  UBS agrees, and sees this as a rising trend:

Families of great wealth are becoming more mobile and global. Their children are going to school and marrying all over the world. Assets are in different countries. The result is a Rubik’s cube of geographies, cultures and generations…

To be clear, the new Gilded Age isn’t an American thing, but a global development.

They increasingly work together to influence the world This isn’t a new idea, as those of us using words like “oligarchy” and “plutocracy” have been remarking for a while.  Yet UBS not only agreed, but argues that billionaires are increasingly organizing to reshape, well, civilization:

Billionaires are turning to networks of peers more than ever, finding common ground and addressing business issues as well as the biggest human problems like climate change and global health. Increasingly, families are cooperating on new ventures and philanthropic causes…

These philanthropists have big ambitions: to address climate change, improve public education, alleviate poverty, eliminate malaria, find a cure for Alzheimer’s and so on…

Interesting details: while the ultrarich continue to buy art for both private and public purposes (UBS references the Renaissance here, citing the Medici), they are also increasingly involving themselves in sports.  They buy up teams and clubs.  Should American higher ed expect more of this kind of thing?

China continues to rise China’s hybrid economy (communist/capitalist) continues to generate uber-rich people: “there are more Asian than US billionaires for the first time”.

For planetary context,

During [2016], the number of Asian billionaires rose by 117 (23%) to 637. By contrast, there were just 25 more (+5%) US billionaires at 563. Europe’s billionaire population was flat. After 3 net new entrants, the number was 342. Asia’s economic expansion saw, on average, a new billionaire every other day, with the population expanding by a record 162. Taken together, the wealth of Asian billionaires grew by almost a third (+31%) in 2016, up from USD1.5 trillion to USD2.0 trillion.

Asian billionaires, while billionaires, don’t have as much as American ones, but are working on it.  According to UBS, “if current growth trends continue, the total wealth of Asia’s billionaires will overtake the US in four years.”

Technology isn’t the leading billionaire-maker Much as many people and media focus on technology, it’s good to remember it’s not the only sector in the world.  UBS finds tech businesses to be a very small contributor to creating billionaires.  Consumer/retail is by far the leading business sector for this.  Then materials and industrials – classic 20th century fields! – are the next leaders, all before tech:

billionaire-making industries_2016_UBS

They really hate the estate tax In case you’re wondering why American politicians are so eager to reduce “the death tax”:

The past 20 years’ exceptional wealth creation will soon be followed by the biggest-ever wealth transfer. We estimate that less than 500 people (460 of the billionaires in the markets we cover) will hand USD 2.1trn to their heirs in the next 20 years, equivalent to India’s GDP.

That money has to go somewhere.

The possibility of social resistance The report’s lead author developed a different point in a Guardian article.  Point being, most people might not be happy with this class, or their new riches and power: Continue reading

Posted in research topics, trends | 6 Comments

What participants think of the Future Trends Forum

Last month I fired up a survey for people who’ve participated in the Future Trends Forum.  I did this to get a better sense of what participants value, and to collaboratively develop the Forum into its third (!) year.  In the spirit of transparency, I share the results here.

If you’re a Forum fan, or are interested more broadly in how online communities and networks function, this might be useful to you.

tl:dr – overall, people are very positive about the Forum as it currently functions, and generally open to some new ideas.

Forty-seven (47) people responded to the survey, which is only 2.5% of the 1800+ people on the Forum’s email registry.  So although the responses are good, they might not be representative.  In fact, this might be more like a quick focus group than a representative survey.

Respondents were positive about the Forum overall.  38.30% thought it “excellent” and 53.19% considered it “useful”.  A scant 8.51% were neutral, and nobody was negative.

When asked “What is the most important benefit you get from the Forum?”, respondents offered an interesting variety of answers, including:

  • Connections with interesting people (I think this means both guests and fellow participants)
  • Keeping up with emerging thoughts, technologies, and practices
  • Some going beyond one’s comfort zone: “stimulation and mind stretching”, “Getting pushed to think about things that might be slightly off of my radar but should be on it”, “Although the content often doesn’t directly relate to me and/or my position, I find the discussions informative!”
  • Interacting and learning without travel (for example: “hearing real voices of people in my field w/o having to physically travel”)
  • Global reach (“Direct real time engagement internationally”)

Which of those topics and ideas were most meaningful to participants?  Reshaping higher education, emerging technologies,  technology-enabled pedagogies, and student-centered learning and technology were at the list’s top.  Here’s more (apologies for some text slightly truncated):

Forum favorite topics

Continue reading

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The next five Future Trends Forum sessions

Greetings, Future Trends Forum friends!

I’d like to announce guests for next week and also the entire month of December.  We’re actually scheduling as far out as February 2018, and I wanted to give you all a heads-up about our fine guests and topics.

Coming up:

November 28: Ithaka S+R senior researcher Rayane Alamuddin and professor Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University will discuss the important and just-released report “Higher Ed Insights”.   This surveys college and university leaders about their views concerning higher education in the present and future.  (Click here to RSVP)

Rayane Alamuddin

Rayane Alamuddin

December 7: Chris Jagers, CEO of LearningMachine, a startup seeking to get student records on blockchain technology, will discuss blockchain’s possibilities – and current uses – in education.

December 14: Liv Gjestvang, Associate Vice President for Learning Technology The Ohio State University and winner this month of the EDUCAUSE Rising Star Award, will share her thoughts about educational technology, changing the pace of work, and collaboration.

December 21: Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver and director of the Digital Polarization Initiative, will discuss digital literacy.

December 28: we will hold our annual Forum holiday session.  That means lighthearted silliness, complete with fun hats, high tech, and, likely, champagne. (Here’s last year’s Forum party)

Each session takes place from 2-3 pm EST.

I’ll have questions for each guest (maybe even at the party).  More importantly, you’ll have the chance to ask your own. After all, the way the Forum works is that all attendees can ask our guests questions, engage and collaborate with other leaders in education technology, and also invite friends and colleagues to join.

To RSVP for the Ithaka S+R session, or to just jump in when it starts at 2 pm EST on November 28th, click here.

To find more information about the Future Trends Forum, including notes and recordings of all previous sessions, click here: https://bryanalexander.org/the-future-trends-forum/ .

Posted in Future Trends Forum | 2 Comments

Reading _Weapons of Math Destruction_, the final chapters

ONeil_Weapons of Math Destruction pb coverWith this post we conclude our reading of Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.  (If you’d like to catch up with the reading schedule, click here.  All posts for this reading, including the schedule one, are grouped here.)

Here I’ll summarize this week’s chapters, then offer some discussion questions.

But first, checking in on fellow readers’ reactions: Jason Green posted his responses to part 4.

Meanwhile, author O’Neil has a new New York Times piece on academia and automation, urging researchers to work on the problems caused by algorithms.  One Princeton professor pushes back, as does a research team.  A Google Doc sprung up to document academic programs studying data.  The London School of Economics has at least two blog posts and one commission on the topic. (thanks to George Station for these last links)


Chapter 10,  “The Targeted Citizen: Civic Life” 

Here the book turns to politics and the way algorithms might reshape it.  O’Neill begins with two recent studies, each of which suggested Facebook users’ attitudes can be altered by what they see on that network.

Next, the chapter tours the history of recent American presidential campaigns and their use of big data, starting with direct mail (187), and touching on the Romney, Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Cruz runs.  O’Neil noted Cambridge Analytica’s role early (191; she references this 2015 Guardian article).

The chapter concludes by looking at microtargeting in anti-abortion and other campaigns, citing the research of Zeynep Tufekci.  It finds American republicans more interested in, and susceptible to, microtargeting (194) and concludes that the practice constitutes a very dangerous WMD.  “It is vast, opaque, and unaccountable.” (198) . It also separates people civically, as “it will become harder to access the political messages our neighbors are seeing – and as a result, to understand why they believe what they do.” (195)

Interestingly, in the 2016 edition of this book O’Neil decided not to call Facebook and Google WMDs, in the political context:

I wouldn’t yet call Facebook or Google’s algorithms political WMDs, because I have no evidence that the companies are using their networks to cause harm.  Still, the potential for abuse is vast. (185)


Big Data processes codify the past.  They do not invent the future.  Doing that requires moral imagination, and that’s something only humans can provide. (204)

This is the first edition’s conclusion, which is revised to an extent in the afterward.  Its essence is a call for federal regulation of algorithms.

O’Neil begins by noting that WMDs are bad enough in isolation, but that their synergies can make things worse.  “The problem is that they’re feeding on each other.” (199) . They may have some benefits, but the poorest will suffer the worst (202).

How could regulation work?  O’Neil proposes a data scientist’s ethical code, akin to medical doctors’ Hippocratic Oath (205).  She goes on to describe how a state regulation would have to carefully measure WMD impact, how auditing movements could work, and that we should simply ditch some of the algorithms that can’t be fixed:

The only solution in such a case is to ditch the unfair system.  Forget, at least for a decade or two, about building tools to measure the effectiveness of a teacher. (208)

Others should be “dumb[ed] down.” (210) .   Some positive ones might work, even in education (216).  Meanwhile, helpful actors like ProPublica can use algorithms to expose and oppose WMDs (211).  Ultimately, black box algorithms should be opened to the public (214).


(This is apparently new for the 2017 paperback edition)

We begin with the 2016 election and the role algorithms played in it, from polling to Facebook.  ProPublica again appears in a heroic role, exposing another WMD in the justice system (223-4).  O’Neil is skeptical about polling, criticizing it for generating bad readings, and thinks its importance will dwindle in the wake of Trump’s win (221-2).

The author also offers a modification to her previous work, suggesting that we understand algorithms by “identify[ing] the stakeholders and weigh[ing] their relative harms.” (225) . That means balancing costs and benefits across society, such as comparing people protected by software versus those harmed.  One example is the state of Michigan, whose employment tracking program falsely accused 20,000 people of fraud, injuring their reputations, along with their ability to get jobs (226-7).  O’Neil also recommends that we examine not only data processing but collection (229).


  • How can political campaigns best use big data and data analytics without causing harm?
  • Which educational uses of algorithms actually benefit learners?
  • Which actors (agencies, nonprofits, companies, scholars) are best placed to help address the problems O’Neil identifies?
  • Are there themes in the book we haven’t addressed, that we should?

And that brings us to the end of this reading.  If you’re like to look back over our earlier discussions of Weapons, click here.  If you’d like to learn more about our book club, including our previous readings, click here.

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Into the future with air travel dystopia

Recently I’ve been thinking about air travel, dystopia, and the future.

Yes, it’s natural for anyone flying in the United States* to think of dystopia, given our system’s combination of misanthropic service, grim airports, overcrowding, a military-like mix of rushing and delays, escalating surveillance, and overall miasma of despair and doom.  This is a logical, even organic insight.  Yet I’d like to use it to look ahead as well.

For starters, last week I “enjoyed” a trip on United Basic Economy.  If you’re new to the concept, it’s like economy, except with less charm.  As in:

  • No carry-on luggage.  One “personal item” is permitted alone.
  • No choice in seating.  You sit where they put you.
  • No upgrades or refunds.
  • No gate checking for luggage.
  • You get seated last, meaning you are the easiest to bump.

For a bonus, when I checked into the ticket counter at the Burlington Airport an agent told me I could carry a couple of bags after all. When I reached the departure gate the agent there disagreed, and insisted on charging me double to check my duffel and CPAP bags: $110 US for a couple of smallish bags.

I’m morbidly fascinated by the idea of Basic Economy.  If it’s aimed at poorer travelers, how is United expecting to make any money off of them?  If it’s aimed at day trippers (say, flying to another city for a meeting in the morning, then flying back, and hence not requiring luggage) wouldn’t those travelers resent the bad treatment?  Surely reducing the amount of carry on luggage isn’t that large a concern?

Maybe I’m looking at Basic Economy the wrong way.  Perhaps it’s not a niche marketing effort, but a trial for what a large swath of economy seating might become: degraded, more tightly controlled.  It’s a preview of things to come.  Then we can pay more to avoid it – say, there’s a business model!

When I returned from this trip, an online friend pointed me to a hilarious Delta paid ad in the New York Times, entitled “WELCOME TO THE AIRPORT OF THE FUTURE!”  It’s an enthusiastic celebration of new technologies applied to the Delta air travel experience, and worth looking at in some detail.

The whole thing is written in the second person present tense.  “You are doing this,” “You enjoy that”, and so on.  It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure set in Franz Kafka International Airport.It’s hard to read any of these assertions without laughing.  For example, “Airport lobbies are designed with beauty and functionality in mind, reducing congestion while creating a calm and welcoming environment.” (bold in original) Ahahahaha!  Sorry, I just spent quality time in the Orlando and Philadelphia airports.

Delta airport of the future

The hortatory voice of Delta goes on: Continue reading

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Now comes the call for wealthy countries to make more babies

(Yes, I’m back in the bloghouse.  I’ve traveled thousands of miles so far this month, and am catching up.)

Over the past two weeks two interesting opinion pieces appeared, calling for families in certain nations to make more, not few, babies.  It’s one of those times when I as a futurist can mutter “I knew it! about time!”  We might be seeing a trend appear and start to rise.

Let me back up and explain.

Soylent Green posterBack 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.)

You will notice that during the decades after the population bomb’s warning Earth hasn’t been overrun by teeming hordes devouring everything in their path.  Mass starvation hasn’t occurred.  One big reason for this welcome development is that overpopulation terrified large numbers of people and many governments to take steps to reduce population growth, most notably China’s one child per family policy.    (This is one of those cases where predictions can be productively wrong: by successfully influencing the world to take steps to avoid a bad state of affairs.  Futurism often gets dinged unfairly for this, in terms of predictions that didn’t play out.  People forget the futuring work is an intervention, with consequences, we hope.)

Another reason, which bears on education, is, well, education.  Since the 1970s humans worldwide have received more formal instruction than at any point in our history.  As plenty of research has shown, when girls and women have more education, they tend to give birth to fewer children.  Schools have helped defuse the population bomb, in other words.

Additionally, and related, women in the wake of feminist progress have been choosing lives that might not focus mostly on child-bearing and -rearing, which is a massive social transformation in itself, obviously.  This change includes a reduction in reproduction rates.  As one writer pithily sums up, “The population bomb is being diffused. By women. Because they want to.” (I’m pretty sure they meant “defused”)

On top of that, we’ve had progress in public health, including the promulgation of birth control, improved sanitation and water access, improved treatment, and more.  (Uneven, yes, but still, overall progress.)  Hence our living longer lives, meaning folks over 65 constitute a larger proportion of the population, driving average and median ages up.  Hence our having great abilities to control population growth.

There are other reasons in play here, including a possible generational downshift in births, but you get the idea.  Overall, that mid-to-late 20th century fear of overpopulation has been addressed well enough to become the staple of a new round of popular culture about people under-reproducing themselves, in films like Idiocracy (2006). Silicon Valley can emit a food-thing called Soylent without it being a sick joke, at least in terms of overpopulation concerns.

Beyond fiction and the Valley, a growing number of developed nations worry about underpopulation as their inhabitants age, giving rise to concerns about imbalances between younger workers and older pensioners/retirees, which have implications for taxes, labor economics, pensions, and many other issues.  (This plays a role in immigration debates.) . China has changed its one child policy to allow, and even encourage, families to have two children each.  It’s not uncommon to speak of the opposite of a baby boom, a baby bust.

Accordingly, for several years I’ve been watching for signs of someone calling for people to have more children.

(NB: I am not echoing such a call, in case you’re wondering.  I am observing it as a cultural development with potential power to shape the future.)

Some on the cultural right have been urging people to have more children for some time.  The Quiverfull movement, for example, celebrates families with oodles of kids.  These voices have been clear, but culturally very marginal.  Instead, I’ve been waiting to see them, or rather, their ideas, go mainstream.

Cue American politician and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who was a baby when Limits to Growth Appeared, and a two-year-old when Soylent Green appeared.  He just published a high profile editorial calling for Americans to have more children. Continue reading

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