Reading _Soonish_, part 1

SoonishToday we start our reading of Soonish, written and illustrated by Kelly and Zack Weinersmith.  In this post we’ll explore and discuss chapters 1-3.  So far the book is a riot of big science, comedy, and good teaching.

Please add your thoughts, questions, answers, and more in comments, or wherever else you like. Remember that all blog posts on Soonish, including this one, are available under the single tag /soonish/.  That way you can check out previous posts and discussion for reference, and also if you come late to the schedule.

I reached out to the authors on Twitter, and Kelly Weinersmith wrote back expressing interest in our reading, which is awesome.


1: Introduction

“[S]o why write this book?  Because there are amazing things happening all over the place every day, all the time, and most people aren’t aware of them.”(7)

The authors begin by issuing caveats.  The title means the Weinersmiths won’t attach time frames to their forecasts.  They warn us to expect surprise developments, “[t]he big discontinuous leaps, like the laser and computer” (2).

A larger caveat involves the sheer complexity of technological development.  Most of the introduction concerns the history of superconducting quantum interference device technology (SQUID) as an example of many, many odd contingencies combining.  Which strikes me as excellent futuring advice.

The Weinersmiths announce that they will cite a great deal of research, and also interview scientists, “a lot of mildly crazy people”.  We will see some of them in the next chapter, working from NASA’s NIAC, a/k/a “a sort of asylum for people with really crazy space ideas that just might work”.

2: Cheap Access to Space

The first tech the book explores involves  wide range of ways to get people and machines from the Earth’s surface and into space, in less expensive ways than we’ve done so far.  These include: reusable rockets, like the SpaceX Falcon 9; spaceplanes, like ramjets and scramjets; superguns, including the wild and tragic Gerald Bull story (45ff); rocket sleds; the awesomely named Slingatron; firing lasers at rockets; the space elevator.

Overall, it’s a very skeptical chapter.  The authors don’t see a clear way forward on any of these.  “It will not be easy to make any of these technologies work…” (45)

3: Asteroid Mining

This chapter builds on the previous one, imagining ways that we could use space travel to harvest materials from asteroids.  The authors break this down into key components, from how to get to asteroids, how to bring them back to earth, economic and geopolitical impacts, and so on.  More technological concepts appear, from WRANGLER to rock harpooning and giant nets.

Overall, this struck me as a more optimistic chapter than its predecessor.

Thoughts and questions

I found these chapters delightful so far, both for the sense of humor and the clear pedagogical approach in explaining complex topics.  I was sobered by the many obstacles to space, as an old space exploration fan.  I find the historical digressions to be very useful. And I enjoy the voices of scientists sampled here.

  1. What do you see as the role of universities in contributing to these technologies?
  2. How do the authors balance the problems with the benefits of the technologies examined so far?
  3. What do you think of cheap access to space and asteroid mining?
  4. What do you make of the pedagogy here, in explaining difficult concepts?

Next week we’ll tackle three more chapters, 4 (Fusion Power), 5 (Programmable Matter), and 6 (Robotic Construction).

Posted in book club | Tagged | 17 Comments

EDUCAUSE offers to buy the New Media Consortium’s assets

An update on the New Media Consortium bankruptcy story: EDUCAUSE is offering to buy up the NMC’s assets.  This is a major development in that story, with great potential to influence the field of educational technology.

In this post I’ll share what information I’ve found, then offer some quick reflections.

Once again, I’m not a lawyer.  I’m a researcher, and have been tracking this story closely, as best I can, in part by asking many lawyers for their thoughts, and also by wading through publicly available legal documents.  If there are any errors in this post, they are my own. Also, as I’ve said before, I am not an NMC staff or board member, not am I claiming to speak for them or the defunct organization.

The EDUCAUSE purchase offer was communicated to the court by the bankruptcy trustee on Friday, February 2nd, according to court documents (via PACER; case number 17-28245; case name “New Media Centers”).  The trustee moved that the court accept the offer.

What is in the offer?

EDUCAUSE would pay $55,000 for a range of NMC assets.

Those assets include:

  • the Horizon Report project
  • any software “developed to facilitate the NMC Horizon Project and the production of the Horizon Reports, including related coding and tools”
  • NMC trademarks
  • related to that, “[a]ny interest in the names NMC Horizon Project, The New Media Consortium, NMC Horizon Report>Higher Education Report, and NMC/CoSN Horizon Report>K-12 Edition, and all associated goodwill”
  • membership and subscriber lists,
  • the website
  • physical items (“Non-leasehold furniture, fixtures, and equipment”)
  • NMC’s official phone number

Additionally, EDUCAUSE would be safe from any “actual, pending, threatened or potential litigation or cause of action to which NMC is, or may in the future be, a party”.

How this is likely to proceed: from what I understand, the court has to approve this measure.  Also, someone else could enter a competing bid, although I think they have to put down $10,000 to be taken seriously.  There’s going to be a court hearing on February 14th, at 10 am, local time.

A few thoughts about this major development:

First, this doesn’t come out of the blue.  NMC partnered with the ELI unit of EDUCAUSE for more than a decade (since 2002, according to this NMC page).  As the world’s biggest ed tech organization, EDUCAUSE has long been a collaborative venue for NMC, as well as a likely player in this bankruptcy case.

Second, note the way the court document describes things: “NMC is primarily known for its Horizon Report”.  Horizon is really central to this offer, as opposed to other NMC products and services (annual conference, other research, webinars, non-Horizon technology development, workshops, and the NMC community, to name a few).

Third, this is a bold and generous move by EDUCAUSE.  They are playing the white knight, stepping up to rescue assets that many in the ed tech world value.

Fourth, about what happens next: I don’t know of any other player that’s ready to plunk down more than $55,000 to grab NMC materials for themselves.  If the sale goes through, I don’t know what EDUCAUSE plans to do with the intellectual property.  Will EDUCAUSE relaunch a new Horizon Report, either under that name or some other?  I hereby invite comments from that organization.

Fifth, this has no immediate impact on project FOECast.  After all, FOECast is not an attempt to repurpose Horizon, but to start something new.  Down the road, I’m not sure how FOECast development will intersect with whatever EDUCAUSE will do with Horizon.  Much depends on what that organization does with the intellectual property.

Sixth, what happens to the NMC community?  Note that EDUCAUSE is purchasing membership and subscriber lists, which certainly gives them a chance to call those people to… join EDUCAUSE? form a new organization? discuss together what they would like to do next? Note, too, the phrase about obtaining “all associated goodwill”.

Seventh, the court documents don’t really address the Creative Commons aspect to Horizon and other NMC publications.   NMC published these documents under CC licenses, as opposed to traditional copyright, which leads to some fascinating questions about intellectual property.  However, apart from one quick note (“NMC would then produce and publish the reports with an open license, generally available to the public”), I can’t find the trustee or any other person represented in court records saying anything more.

That’s my hot take for now.  More importantly, what do you think about this development?

For my previous posts on the NMC bankruptcy and liquidation, see here.

Posted in education and technology | Tagged | 13 Comments

Enter the shark tank, or when academic cultures collide

An American university’s leadership team had an inspired idea: organizing a faculty retreat along the lines of the Shark Tank tv show.  Things did not go well.

What can we learn about this, beyond appreciating the comic aspects, of which there are many?

First, it reminds us that, in media and technology terms, tv culture continues to be fragmented.  Even though Shark Tank is a famous show, many of the administrators and faculty in the Chronicle story had never seen it, nor have I.  (I actually saw a related version of this two months ago, when serving on a grant board, and looking over a K-12 Shark Tank-themed proposal.  Some of the board knew the show and loved the idea, while others had no idea what they were talking about.)

It’s not just the particular show, either, but its genre – reality tv – that divided this population:

[Deborah Kohl, associate dean of the University of Baltimore’s college of arts and sciences] said she and her dean had to look up episodes of Shark Tank before the retreat because they had never seen it. And she didn’t like what she saw. “We were magnificently insulted that we were being asked to approach such a serious set of issues in that particular reality-TV way,” Kohl said.

I wonder if there are political echoes there, given the current American president’s long reality tv show career.
shark ship

Second, the University of Baltimore story offers a small datapoint about clashing models of how higher education should function.  The Shark Tank proponents represent the market-oriented view, which some call the corporate or neoliberal university.  Its opponents argue instead in favor of a non-profit, service-oriented model.  The former happily spoke of ROI and market share for academic programs, along with the necessity of punishing losses:

just like in Shark Tank, there would be clear losers. “Remember that some programs should receive zero investment dollars because they have been targeted for divestment,” read the memo.

The former celebrates competition, while the latter prefers colleagiality.

Third, the story also reminds us of the enormous financial stresses pressing on American higher education.  That’s because the events happened in an atmosphere of cuts:

The meeting — and the juxtaposition of academic management with a glitzy show about cutthroat capitalism — created a small frenzy among faculty members about whether drastic cuts were heading their way. Their worries were somewhat justified. Top administrators have recently discussed, for instance, dissolving the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences…

The $1 million in proposed investment was fake, but the university’s budget challenges are real. And the institution is on the hook to trim “a couple million dollars” from its operating budget by April 1, [Darlene Brannigan Smith, the university’s provost and executive vice president] said.

Fourth, note that the retreat was already not too far removed from the Shark Tank model.  It was an academic program prioritization exercise, wherein faculty and administrators make the case for shifting more or fewer resources to individual programs and departments.  That is precisely a situation where one or more units will be, in fact, “targeted for divestment”.

Have any of my readers watched Shark Tank and can comment?

(thanks to Greg Britton)

Posted in gaming | Tagged | 5 Comments

Down with that new-fangled technology: a Vermont anecdote

This morning it was around -10 °F (-23 °C) before the sun rose:

dark morning with moon

It’s been colder, but rarely so bright at night.  Yet that’s not the anecdote I wanted to share.

A few days ago Vermont Public Radio shared a story about a new plan to entice people to move to our small, chilly state.

I posted a comment about a key detail missing from the plan:

We’re not going to grow until we improve our network infrastructure. Far too much of Vermont is ill served by poor internet connectivity. The same’s true for cell phone signals.

It’s the argument I’ve been making for a decade, as some of you know.  My comment on this NPR page was intended to keep that theme going.

What fascinated me was the lone reply to appear, from one Thaddeus Wildasin:

We’ve lived here for generations without the web. I think we could manage. There are bigger problems here. I do agree it would be nice but if you think about it the internet is most of the problem here. Goods shipped from overseas, less reliance on local companies, plus the slumlords of the information superhighway.

It’s a fascinating comment for a range of reasons.  There’s the conflation of broadband and the web itself (at least partially accessible without serious broadband).  There’s the sense that broadband is “nice”, not important, and certainly not essential.  Thaddeus goes on to see the internet as “most[ly]” responsible for globalization (and national trade, I think), which is a fascinating case of strong technological determinism.  Then there’s the interesting echo of today’s popular critique of social media as digital slumlords (I think; he could be referring to post-net neutrality ISPs).

Above all looms the first two sentences: “We’ve lived here for generations without the web. I think we could manage.”  I wonder when the first person made that argument about a new technology – not as an active critique or resistance, but instead offering a sense that the technology some saw as vital was actually superfluous, a surplus to the real world, an excrescence upon actual, lived history.  It brought to mind that century-ago cliche of “if God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings”.

I wasn’t the only one thinking historically.  Over on Facebook, in response to my sharing this comment, two friends (from out of state!) offered a bit of antiquarian ventriloquism:

That inspired me to get biting:

We’ve lived here without anesthesia for generations. I think we could manage.
If you think about it, modern medicine is really the problem here…

Further echoes are left as an exercise to readers and commentators.

I have no idea how widespread this belief is among Vermonters. Most people I speak with think our poor connectivity is a shame, not a virtue.

It did remind me of an exchange I had with three state gubernatorial candidates in fall 2016.  I’d put a question to the trio, asking how they’d improve internet access, and describing the poor broadband situation:

The Democrat, Sue Minter, cheered me up by suddenly asserting this as a campaign cause; alas, she lost the election.  The Republican, Phil Scott, depressed me be carefully saying the state shouldn’t do anything on this score; alas, he won.

The third candidate, though, a semi-serious one named Bill “Spaceman” Lee, offered a different take.  He said I was lucky to have bad broadband and no cell phone access.  More people should live that way.  That elicited a round of applause from the studio audience.

So, Mr. Wildasin, thank you for the comment and the thoughts it inspired on this new-fangled web thing.  I’ll reply to you on that thread soon.  I hope you see enough utility in the web to read it, and maybe respond back.

Posted in technology | Tagged | 3 Comments

Why do we love aristocracies in the 21st century?

Why do we still love aristocrats?

As we stagger through the 21st century, I’m very curious.  Why do we cling to these medieval, even ancient mental, social, and behavioral patterns?

aristocrats_The Wandering FaunLately I’ve been observing the American obsession with our own aristocratic remix.  That is, we clearly admire some plutocrats, including those proceeding on inherited, family wealth.  We elected one president.   Many of us love multi-generational political families; witness this week’s celebration of Joe Kennedy III, the persistence of the Bush dynasty, or the growing interest in Chelsea Clinton.

Additionally, many Americans adore rich celebrities – think of the Kardashian following, or the sudden declaration of support for Oprah Winfrey to become president of the United States.

The United States, conceived in republican revolution, has long had its rich and/or famous and/or politically powerful families.  Our own version of aristocracy has ranged from Brahmins and slaveholding families to Kennedys, Longs, and Roosevelts.  Now it looks like we’re continuing that tradition into the 21st century.

Personally, I don’t partake in this phenomenon, so I’ve missed its emergence or continuation.  Which makes me curious about how it works in 2018.

Does the social media experience give us a sense of closeness to these otherwise fairly inaccessible people?  Perhaps our ability to retweet a celebrity’s thoughts or share a Kennedy’s embedded YouTube videos gives us a virtual sense of connection, closer than holding photos in a magazine or hearing their voices on radio.

Has the lower-case-r republican ideology not been active for a while?  Paul Berman made that case in his Terror and Liberalism (2003), arguing that a functioning, secular democracy needed some popular belief to function well.  Yet some social science research finds decreasing support for democracy.   Others argue that Trump’s political successes reveal an American weakness for autocracy.  Perhaps a rising interest in American aristocracy appears in between these two poles, of dissatisfaction with democracy and appeal to strongman rule.

There’s a classic psychology to supporting or enjoying aristocrats.  The well-born elite can serve as vicarious heroes for us, representations of our selves, family members, or love objects.  Perhaps this psychology simply carries on in the age of smartphones and social media, amplified by our new information systems.

aristocracy by ojo bionico

Or is this really just one sign of deepening inequality and rising oligarchy/plutocracy?  That is, the economic forces are at work – have been at work for a while, actually – and now the culture is developing forms for recognizing and supporting it.   The 1%’s 1% might accelerate away from the rest of us, but enough of us can admire them to keep the guillotine from descending.

Several cultural offshoots might also support this.  There’s the old Puritan work ethic, which we can translate into “if so and so is rich and powerful, it’s because they worked hard and deserve it.”  There is also the more recent prosperity gospel, linking success in this world to favors showered from the next.  The former has shown remarkable durability over the past century.  The latter seems well suited to a 21st century fairly radiant with religious belief; it’s an open question how well it will play with a more secular or religiously unaffiliated younger generation.

Along those lines, what is the role of education in shaping a 21st century aristocracy?  The Economist argues that certain forms of education – private primary and secondary schools, the right Ivy colleges – help give inherited wealth an aura of intelligence.  That has long been the case with European aristocracies, and some American families have imitated that.  I wonder to what extent American educators see themselves as helping grow a modern aristocracy.

This 21st century echo of the medieval elite… is it likely to continue over the next decades, or is this moment the last residual twitch of an outmoded system?

(photos by The Wandering Faun and Ojo Bionica)

Posted in futures | 1 Comment

A new report from an all-women futurists group

We need more women’s voices in the futures field.  That’s a well known issue in the profession, reflected in discussion, planning, and work (for the latter, witness the new, gender-balanced APF board).  Much work remains.

That’s one reason I’m excited to see the appearance of “Providentia’s Prospectus“.  This Futures Forum publication represents the forecasting work of nine women and no men.  It’s also an international group (Mexico, South Africa, Australia, Kenya, and Bulgaria, as well as the USA), which is excellent.

Not just another trends outlook, this report is the first to curate the views of women futurists from five regions of the world – Africa, Australia, Europe, Latin America and North America. Because the work of The Futures Forum is about creating a thriving world that works for all, we are intentional about filling the gap in the strategic foresight community, by ensuring that companies and organizations have a more inclusive perspective on the futures landscape.

The Prospectus addresses eighteen trends across several categories: “Political, Economic, Social, Health, Environmental, and Technological.”

There is also a video introduction:

Brava to Claire Nelson for editing and producing this report!

Posted in futures | 4 Comments

Our project has a title! Now for next steps

Last week I asked for your thoughts on naming a new project, a higher education and technologies futuring research effort.  Over the next few days nearly one hundred votes poured in.

Which name won out?  The clear winner was FOECast, for Future Of Education foreCast.

Name polling results

Bravo!  And thanks to everyone who contributed their votes and thoughts.

We can now proceed with our design effort.  (I’m also busy tagging some previous posts “FOEcast”, so you can find them all in one spot.)

(And if the name doesn’t work out, no worries.  We can rename things once we complete the design phase.)

First up, we will launch an organizing website.  What would you like to see in it?

Here are some thoughts:

  • A clear description of the project
  • A wiki or Google Doc for people to indicate their interest and share their thoughts
  • A timeline/blog/calendar for next steps (and see below)
  • An email notification sign-up
  • Name and link to a Slack group

Do those sound useful?  What else should we add?  We’ll get this going quickly.

forecast hurricane_NASA Goddard

Now, for next steps after the site launches.  Here’s what’s on deck.

  • Preparing for at least two face-to-face design thinking sessions.  There’s a lot of activity happening now, and I’ll update you all (here and at the FOECast site) as it clarifies.
  • Planning for a synchronous design thinking/brainstorming session.  This would combine videoconference with Google Doc or wiki, and be open to any interested folks.
  • Getting ready for an asynchronous design thinking/brainstorming exercise.  This should take several days and combine multiple technologies: videoconference (several sessions), wiki or Google Doc, social media.  The idea here is to keep working on FOECast, but involving people more fully from global time zones (which is essential!), and giving more time for reflection than a synchronous session affords.
  • I’ll continue pinging individuals and organizations who’ve expressed interest through email, LinkedIn, Facebook, and their blogs.
  • There could be more, too, as the project develops and interest continues to build.

The FOECast website will help organize these different efforts, and aggregate our accumulating thinking.

How does that sound?

reaching for tomorrow_Jamais Cascio

It’s very exciting to see this progress!

(photos by Jamais Cascio and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Posted in research topics | Tagged | 3 Comments

How will we respond to the dawning age of fake video?

What could happen if our trust in video collapses?

Put another way, how could we respond when video can be altered as easily as images can be Photoshopped?

Let me explain.  We are approaching that state now.  Humans love video, both consuming and producing it.  That video habit keeps growing, as a casual glance at Netflix, YouTube, or videoconferencing will show, and seems unlike to stall.  At the same time, new tools are coming out, along with AI applications, which are giving us the power to remix video content in powerful ways.  I’m not talking about FinalCutPro, which has let us edit footage and remix multimedia for years.  I’m referring instead to the ability to alter preexisting video in ways that convince audiences of their veracity.

This has taken some time, as video files are larger and more challenging than images by an order of magnitude.  Digital innovation just keeps racing ahead, and is approaching a crucial inflection point.

A few months ago RadioLab dove into this emerging trend.  They showed multiple ways to alter video which might convince some audiences now.  Check out the example they created: not that great, but could fool some folks.   Or look at this work from 2016, nearly two years ago:

Two years is a long time in the digital world.  After all, those tools are improving, and could well become more powerful in the short and medium term futures.  We’re hitting the uncanny valley, and can scale the other side.  Indeed, we’re starting to see early signs of this with people transposing faces (so far) onto those of  porn actresses (and actors, I presume).  “Deepfakes” is the keyword.

What about audio, though?  Could video images become the prey of pranksters, but the human voice remain trustworthy?  Probably not.  Adobe is working on a tool currently dubbed VoCo (Voice Conversion, or Photoshopping Voiceovers) popularly dubbed “Photoshop for audio”.

It hasn’t appeared yet, but it seems likely that either Adobe will bring it to market, or someone else will offer their version, or both.

We can dive into these tools and approaches on a technical basis, but right now I’m curious about what their impact could be.  What might follow the advent of, well, fake video, once it passes technical and popular tests?  We can draw on the history of human responses to fakes for inspiration, as well as look to recent techno-cultural developments.  After all, media provenance questions have been with us for millenia. (Consult Errol Morris on photography or Orson Wells on fakes, for two quick and terrific sources)

The battle between authority and user literacy expands One classic response to a credibility crisis is a turn towards authorities.  If any video we might come across could be compromised or fabricated out of whole cloth, perhaps some skilled people can either determine accuracy to a satisfactory level.  At the same time, certain sources could produce videos with a guarantee of their fidelity, setting up such certainly through, say, a transparent production process, or by presenting sufficient security to protect their work from alteration.  This would offer the average user the option that leading newspapers presented a fake news concerned audience in 2017: trust in a handful of legitimate video outlets.

EDITED TO ADD: one way of establishing authority could be a new form of digital watermarking.  Bethany Bovard had some ideas:

On the other hand, another response to fake anxiety is to empower users/readers/consumers/patrons.  That’s where literacies come in, from print to media, information to digital.  This is one function of schools, and also of public pedagogy.  Will we develop curricula to teach students how to detect fake videos themselves?

Will one of these approaches win out, or will they compete, or work together?  (Last year I wrote about this authority<->literacy dynamic as a continuum.)

Keeping the faith Some may choose to maintain a trust in video fidelity, no matter what they hear (and see) about fake video (and audio).  Millions of people now fall for faked photos, as a casual Snopes or Facebook trawl reveals.  For an analogy, think how many people were appalled at what Snowden revealed about US government surveillance…. and then want right on with their lives without changing an iota of their digital behaviors.

Underground The opposite could happen.  Instead of popular acceptance of a fallen video world, we could see mass revulsion.  (For an analogy, consider the backlash to Google Glass, or the orchestrated marginalization of peer-to-peer file sharing.)  That could drive fake video to the margins, even underground.  In such a future we’d see sporadic stories of “photoshopped videos”, but they would be rare, and broadly hated.

Schism by video In some countries we see some people happily inhabiting media echo chambers, satisfied in being excluded from content and voices they abhor for various reasons.  In the United States we see this reaching a fever pitch with president Trump’s denunciation of anything he dislikes as fake news, and some of his supporters apparently following suit.  We’ve seen a similar pattern in the Philippines.  If this is a useful antecedent, imagine a future with societies divided into competing ideologies or schools, each with their own fake-riddled video ecosystem.  Partisans would scrutinize the opposition’s video objects strenuously, but relax when it comes to their side’s documents.

Open hostilities Today’s troll armies would seem likely to take advantage of fake videos.  They already Photoshop images and create fake social media text content.  Given the full power of video without constraints, imagine the epic rapes, tortures, deaths, etc. that these people could unleash.

Legal battles As both the Radiolab episode and the Wired articles linked above note, “Photoshop for video” means some interesting legal challenges.  How much ownership does one have over one’s face or voice, for example?  Remix has always been a tricky thing in copyright, and should become even more so.  Will “revenge porn” laws expand?

A new career path People will make such tools and products.  They could well do this as a business, or as part of a nonprofit.  In short, fake audio and video could become a career path.  Professionals (and amateurs) might require backgrounds in coding, multimedia editing, communication, and storytelling.  Will schools of all sorts make avoiding such careers a part of their ethical establishment, or will some acquiesce to their students’ progress into the dark side?

Play and storytelling The flipside of fake video terror is playfulness.  For example, when we look at today’s concern about disturbing YouTube videos aimed at children and clicks, we shouldn’t ignore the manic surrealism displayed in those many, many recombinations of characters, objects, and settings.  Surrealism is a style that hasn’t gone away in the century since its inception (another WWI output, by the way).  It appears in popular movies, avant garde art, advertising, and games.  If our taste for it persists, we should expect people to “Photoshop videos” into new realities, like ours, just slightly twisted.

History can be a guide to this.  Think, for example, of Max Ernst’ Une semaine de bonté (1934), with its wild, disturbing, and funny transpositions of heads, dragons, and sculptures across contemporary popular graphics.

…and that’s a start.  How do you see the era of fake audio-visuals playing out?

Posted in digital literacy, technology | 8 Comments

An anecdote about health care, uneven technology use, and Vermont

I was in a central Vermont hospital waiting room yesterday.  Around the large room ten people were quietly sitting.

Then an older woman was wheeled in from surgery of some kind, looking good, if tired. She stared at the room, then loudly demanded, “Why isn’t the tv on?” The person wheeling her around – an attendant? a minder? – meekly found the tv, flipped it on, and quietly handed the patient a remote control. “And no news!” the wheelchair-bound woman added.

Some kind of talk show blared forth. All people in the waiting room turned to watch.  Several eventually disengaged, while the rest remained fixed on the screen, even while standing.

Porter hospital waiting room TV

Not a single cell phone, tablet, or laptop was visible, nor were they prohibited in this space.

Ninety minutes later I and one other person were the only people remaining in the waiting room.  The other person, a middle aged woman, had seated herself as far from the tv screen as possible, and was reading a book with great attention.  I took it upon myself to track down the remote and turn off the tv.  The reader looked up at me from across the room, smiled, and added a quiet “thank you.”

“The future is already here, just unevenly distributed.”

-William Gibson

Posted in technology | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Four hints from the future of technology and education

With this post I continue my habit of sharing stories that seem to suggest useful glimpses of the future.  They’re drawn from my obsessive horizon scanning.

Let’s take a look into autonomous vehicles, cloud computing, plutocrats, social media, and state education funding.

ITEM: Google is continuing to expand its cloud service empire.  They’re even laying an undersea cable, which always makes history-obsessed me think of the telegraph.

Why does this matter?  A few reasons, starting with the quiet point that cloud computing just keeps growing, moving from strength to strength.  It’s all about giant capital enterprises now, which we apparently inhabit to increasing degrees.

It’s also important because the news isn’t flashy.  There’s nothing spectacular in this story, no explosion, no sudden change.  It’s just a quiet datapoint about an important trend.  Futurists have to notice and share these developments, because they can change the world.

ITEM: speaking of Google, George Soros turned on them, as well as against Facebook.  Together they are, in his words, “a menace”.  Moreover,  “[t]heir days are numbered.”  Soros has thrown down the gauntlet, placing the tech giants alongside Trump and nuclear war as civilizational threats. (official transcript)

Why does this matter?  We could see the speech as a datapoint for a trend of tech criticism spreading.  We could also recognize it as a sign of what I’ve called an intra-elite squabble.  As with the famous Apple investor letter, the new doubts about leading technology enterprises and practices are not a question of popular dislike or academic critique, but of disputes within the plutocracy.  As income inequality continues to escalate, as you know, dear readers, the views of millionaires and billionaires becomes ever more dispositional.  This will be the biggest driver of increasing state regulation.

ITEM: The American Automobile Association (AAA) just polled Americans about their attitudes towards self-driving cars, and the responses are very instructive, both about autonomous vehicles and this culture in general.

For example, familiarity seems to be reducing fear: “Six-in-ten (63%) U.S. drivers would be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, down from 78 percent in early 2017.”

Gendering around cars is strong: “Women (73%) are more likely to be afraid than men (52%).”  Asked if they “would feel less safe sharing the road with fully self-driving cars while they drive a regular car… Women (55%) are more likely to feel less safe than men (36%).”  More: “Men (79%) are more likely to consider themselves better-than average drivers than women (68%).”

Generational differences are also firm, as they tend to be with Americans and technology, with youth and tech interest being decently correlated.  For example, “Generation X (70%) and baby boomers (68%) drivers are more likely to be afraid [to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle] than millennial drivers (49%).”  Elsewhere, “Baby Boomer (54%) and Generation X (47%) drivers are more likely to feel less safe [sharing the road with fully self-driving cars while they drive a regular car] than millennial drivers (34%).”  On attitude, “Baby Boomer drivers (79%) are more likely to consider themselves better-than-average drivers than Generation X (69%) drivers.”

Does this mean younger men are likely to lead the migration into autonomous cars?  Perhaps, and it wouldn’t surprise most of us.  The reverse is that opposition might be represented by older women, which could lead to some interesting politics.   However, generations aren’t destiny, despite Strauss and Howe, and things could well flip across these axes.

ITEM: American states increased public higher education funding, but barely.  “[S]tate fiscal support for higher education grew by just 1.6 percent… down sharply from a 4.2 percent increase last year and represents the lowest annual growth in the last five years.”

Things were uneven, varying by state:

On the positive side, this is growth, which is better than what states have been doing for the past generation, on a per-student basis.

On the other hand,

“We’ve seen only anemic growth nationwide, with the exception of a few states,” said James Palmer, Grapevine editor and a professor of higher education at Illinois State University…

“This probably suggests the struggle of many states to sustain the revenue needed to increase funding for colleges and universities,” Palmer said of this year’s slow growth in higher ed funding. “In other words, the fiscal capacity to increase funding for colleges and universities doesn’t seem to be there.”

So we might see state funding struggle upwards, although competition within budgets is fierce.  Recall, too, that America is still thinking that more people need more post-secondary education.  It’s hard to fund that, unless we keep boosting student loan debt.

Note the unevenness across states.  Each state has its own drivers, like North Dakota’s grappling with collapsed oil prices.

Cars, clouds, zillionaires, and states: that’s enough for now.  What do you make of these set of signals from potential futures?

Posted in horizon scanning | 4 Comments