Visualizing future trends for education and technology

With the help of Future Trends in Technology and Education friends and Patreon supporters, we now have a first FTTE infographic.

The idea was to organize all of the 85+ trends the report tracks into a single image. This first design is aimed at appearing as one page, such as for a workshop handout.

FTTE visualization

The heart of it is the group of three main columns, which contain the bulk of FTTE content.  The very top contains the higher ed crisis or bubble trends; they appear up there because they rest on other trends, like pillars.  I showed the connection between specific technologies as they appear in the world and their educational instances (3d printing, digital video, etc) by aligning them up within a colored box.

Each trend contains countervailing trends as well.

Later I’d like to edit and compress it down to smaller sizes, as for a card.  That would most likely involve combining trends into rubrics or mega-trends, like piling VR, AR, and MR together.  I can also turn this into an interactive object, with links from each trend.

What do you think?

Posted in research topics | Tagged | 12 Comments

What’s the best venue for long-form discussion in 2017?

Is there a good digital platform for conducting long-form, multiple participant conversations in 2017?

I’m thinking of conversations that don’t end quickly, but develop and iterate as ideas are posed and reflected upon, with multiple participants weighing in over time.

conversation, photo by mohsanThis question has been in my mind for the past year, due mostly to frustrating Facebook experiences.  I’m not referring to that company’s privacy practices or their baffling feed display algorithm, but to how difficult it is to hold a sustained conversation on that site.  What makes this especially poignant is that it is the very success of such discussions that brings about their downfall.

You see, every week or so one of my posts will elicit a massive commenting response.  Dozens of people will contribute dozens, then over one hundred replies.  Topics are usually cultural, political, or technological, and I can’t always guess accurately ahead of time which will win the discussion jackpot.  These are very gratifying and interesting.  I learn a great deal – well, dear reader, you know my love of conversation.

Then Facebook breaks it up.

After a certain point the entire thread becomes hard to follow.  Notifications no longer lead straight to a new comment, but default back to the originating post.  Sub-threads race away, but become invisible at times, either because Facebook hides the raft of comments behind a “click here” tag, or simply refused to display them.  I’ve seen some of my own comments vanish, and sometimes reappear with a page refresh, which can then hide others.

Some of this is due to the classic architecture of threaded discussions, I admit.  But the rest is Facebook’s unique contribution.  Its black-box algorithm plays games with promoting or hiding content, and that seems to apply to ongoing discussions.  Facebook’s anti-hyperlinking culture means one can’t click reliable into a specific point in the conversation.

Ultimately, the discussion flags as participants can’t navigate their way back in and lose track of where the conversation has led.  Inertia sets in.  Things stall, then cease.

There are additional problems.  People who aren’t part of the Facebook ecosystem can’t play.  Facebook content doesn’t appear in Google, so discoverability is a challenge.  And over time – in the case of an active user like myself, a few short days – the conversation falls into a profile’s depths, crowded out by subsequent posts, inaccessible.

So what should we do?  How can we pursue long-form conversations and avoid these problems?

Here are some options.

The blogosphere Blogs offer better discussion architecture.  Each comment is addressable, as is the entire conversation of post plus comments and inbound links (if visible, depending on platform).

Downsides: a growing number of users shun comments automatically.  Most people don’t comment on blogs.

Should I experiment with this?  I could post hopefully provocative questions on this site, and see if they summon up replies and/or links from elsewhere.

conversation, by quinnanya

Discussion boards These still exist, appearing in online classes, technology support forums, and fan sites.  When they aren’t siloed, as with learning management systems, Google can index and lead us to their content.  There’s a longstanding culture of moderation dating back to the 1990s, which helps address troll problems.

Disadvantages: some (the LMS) are siloed.   Overall, they have very little visibility, beyond 4chan’s notoriety.  My impression is that not many people use them, or if they do, they don’t talk about it.

Would Reddit work?  In my experience each /r/ board is very narrowly focused, which might restrict participation.

Make Facebook work Perhaps we can learn to make this ginormous platform work better.   People do research into the algorithm, which gives us insights into how to make content visible.

Perhaps we can develop social protocols to keep conversations rolling, like launching a follow-up thread once the first reaches a certain threshold.  The owner could post a comment at thread’s end announcing its closure, and relocation to the next one.  This isn’t a hard practice to understand or implement.  We could quickly grow accustomed to it.

Downsides: Facebook can change up on us at any time.  People don’t always like to change their habits.

Messaging platforms, like Snapchat  These have the advantages of rising popularity and some privacy, depending on the technology.

Unfortunately, they are often inaccessible to people not partaking of the ecosystem, and their content items are even less addressable than Facebook.

Video Videoconferencing can support thoughtful discussion, from the best webinars to our Future Trends Forum.  The addition of visual information and sound expands participants’ awareness of other people, while enriching expression bandwidth.  Technology allows us to support at least a dozen people in one space, up to hundreds in the case of Shindig.

The biggest problem video has for my purpose is that it’s only synchronous.  Yes, we can record and publish short videos in response to other videos, but YouTube reply chains are too clunky.  I dimly recall one platform – was it Hootsuite? – that let users record short videos in a discussion style, but that doesn’t seem to work now.

There’s one other problem for video.  It’s much harder in terms of technical skill, network access, and device capability to record and publish video, leading to some digital divide issues.

Audio  This is very similar to video in its strengths and weaknesses.  The second podcast wave has shown us that we can hold good conversations through digital audio.  But, once again, they are synchronous in composition.  Although less technically demanding than video, audio does require more user skills, hardware, and bandwidth than does plain text.

Other social media tools I had hopes that Tumblr could serve this purpose, but text discussion there takes a backseat to image exchanges.  Medium seems designed to minimize conversation in favor of article publication.

I’m a huge fan of Metafilter, which can host some rip-roaring conversations, guided ably by skilled moderators.  Posting to the front page, though, is very tricky, and doesn’t always lend itself to open-ended questions.

A plurality of platforms How about a conversation that sprawls across multiple platforms?  We’ve seen that done successfully through some cMOOCs, which run the social media table.  Our book club has followed this pattern, with participants contributing stuff through comments on my blog posts, their own blog posts, comments on other blogs, Twitter, Google+, and Facebook.  Alternate reality games successfully navigate an at times bewildering range of platforms and technologies. We have some practices (hashtags, email updates) and tools to make this work.

Disadvantages: such conversations can sprawl out of visibility, so that participants only see a slice of it, based on their media habits.  Discoverability becomes tricky, as we might Google our way into another slice and miss the whole, or just other segments.  And hardware plurality can also make this hard, as power smartphone users dive into apps, cleaving apart from laptop and desktop owners, not to mention tableteers.

…and is that it?  Are we at a stage in 2017 where there isn’t a good digital site to host long-form, asynchronous discussion?  Have we raced so far beyond the ages of BBS and Usenet that we can no longer capture what they did well?  Is this an opportunity for innovating a new platform, or is there just a social media practice awaiting our invention?

Will we get retro and dust off the old BBS?  Some hipster might now be coding, well, not an artisanal discussion board, but an interesting and pleasantly redesigned one for general use.

Or the solution lies ahead, in the future.  Perhaps we’re heading towards an emergent practice or platform.  We might integrate video or audio more deeply into our social media use, especially as we make more of the stuff with mobile devices, so that a video-based BBS becomes feasible, then acceptable.  We could use AI to help knit together distributed conversations.

Alternatively, we could lose this discussion habit in general.  We could instead use the wide range of other human interaction formats that digital devices make possible… but it would be a loss.

(photos by Mohamed Sahnoun and Quinn Dombrowski)

Posted in technology, Uncategorized | 24 Comments

Reading _Rainbows End_: the conclusion

And so we conclude our book club’s reading of Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End (previous posts here).  With this post I’ll summarize the closing chapters, offer some reflections, and add some questions for discussion.

I have to say the novel was even more powerful for me upon this fourth reading. The education plot was especially vivid, as were the geopolitics.  And maybe my being older now made the aging stories more present.

If you haven’t finished the book, and if you’re concerned about spoilers, you’ll want to skip the rest of this post after the blue tag cloud coming up, and definitely before the library photo.  We can’t talk about the novel’s end without addressing final plot developments.

…hovering immanent all around him were the worlds of art and science that humankind was busy building.  What if I can have it all?  (last lines, 364)

Two preparatory notes first.  After getting a digital version of the novel, I cobbled up a quick word cloud:

Rainbows End word cloud

I’m fascinated by this.  There aren’t any words directly about education or technology.  Instead it’s about people (so many character names), actions (know, said, look, think, made, turned), basic nouns (hand, world, years, voice, time) and basic descriptions (across, enough, old).  Our main character, Robert Gu, looms large in the middle of it all.  Nothing here says science fiction or the future.

On a different note, Kyle Johnson, the chief information officer of an American college, blogged these reactions to Vinge’s novel.  He offers a terrific summary, and some great observations:

“One thing missing from Vinge’s world is asynchronous learning.”

“[I have] the impression that only students who can’t learn on their own attend classes.  Does that mean in Vinge’s world personalized learning has won out as the primary mode of education for the “smart” students?… formal education is meant to be remedial – for the “stupid” kids and older folks that couldn’t keep learning on their own.”

“Intergenerational learning has a place in Vinge’s world as well, described as adults and high school students learning and working together (apparently with age based cliques to go with it).”

There are a number of other things mentioned in passing that are mostly both interesting and kind of terrifying at the same time, including:

  • higher education running charter schools
  • companies “investing” in students by paying their tuition and then taking a portion of their earnings for life

Read more.  It’s excellent.

The plot: quick summary

Multiple plotlines come to a head and coincide with each other in a spectacular AR/robotic riot/performance around the UCSD library.

Geisel Library at UCSD

Rabbit leads multiple schemes along, and struggles bitterly with Alfred Gaz, damaging the global economy along the way.  Alice and Bob Gu head into battle near home.  Changes come to every member of the Gu family, some very hard.  Robert and Juan complete their classes and look ahead to future possibilities.

Notes about the world and things

At the geopolitical level it looks like a massive intelligence and counterintelligence battle between the United States, the Indo. Union, and between factions within each… yet we can’t tell how any are resolved.  Our final point of view characters exclude the spies, and see little.  The fates of Gaz and Rabbit are left open… potentially for a sequel.  Gaz’ biological weapon plot was foiled at least, through a combination of intrusive government domestic surveillance and independent action; is this a pointer to the rest of the 21st century?

Robert Gu becomes a better person, no longer cruel and creative in a new and credible way.  Yet this is only a partial arc, as his wife still spurns him, and relations with the rest of his family are strained. He has healed greatly, yet still suffers mental gaps. The last line is a perfect mix of hope and fear about backsliding.  To me this reads like fine novel-writing.

One major theme is the boundaries of digital networks.  On the one hand there’s a conflict between silicon and biology, as people run into the limits of their digital plans.  “Despite all her desperation to communicate, she was stuck in molecular biology.” (268) . AR schemes fall into biological damage.   On the other, characters run into the weirdness and shock of being offline, notably in a “deadzone” – I count sixteen uses of the neologism.

Overall, I’m impressed at how carefully Vinge threads the needle between utopia and dystopia.  There’s massive government surveillance, but it seems almost completely under the radar.  Medical science has made strides forward, but people still suffer.  Nobody is a clear villain, except maybe Gaz, and his actions haven’t hauled the world into darkness.

On education: the novel concludes with the end of classes, which means not just exams, but a public demonstration of student projects.  Note the way Vinge maps rapid technological progress onto generational differences:

Chumlig [their teacher] had asserted in an unguarded moment that parents preferred the vocational demos, mainly because they made more sense to them than what other [more advanced] children were doing. (334-5)

On a related point, there’s a triumphant pedagogical moment with just the slightest hint of darkness:

More than anything else, the parents seemed faintly surprised by their children.  They loved the little klutzes, but they thought they knew their limits.  Somehow Chumlig had transformed them – not into supermen, but into clever creatures who could do things the parents themselves had never mastered.  It was a time for pride and a little uneasiness. (341)

Some of the final projects combine the arts and sciences, although the most STEM-centric one seems most likely to lead to money (336).

Tom Haymes observes that the future’s model of success is based on “connecting technologies among hardware systems, between hardware and software, and, most importantly, between both and augmenting human capacities.”  I wonder if Fairmont High is missing the point, or instead is introducing distributed teamwork to set students along that path.

More details of the future:

  • The film industry is “sustained by” hyperactive fans, through belief circles (229).  That’s a different model than today’s, where Hollywood depends instead on mass ticket sales.
  • A new branch of health care has emerged, “prospective medicine” (352).
  • A form of intelligence crowdsourcing is in play, with different leaders organizing “analyst pools”, sometimes drawn from disparate sources.  Are we seeing this now?
  • Cute idea for a new business: wikiBell (!) (241).
  • Nice use of arXiv as an on-the-fly scholarly reference (268).
  • The Friends of Privacy are compromised by US national security agencies (331), and kids know it (333).

Some cute jokes and references, like one spy (accidentally?) citing the old commercial: “That damned bunny.  We can’t stop him.  He just keeps coming and coming and coming.” (288) . Or:  “Maybe this is not a good idea, he thought muzzily.  But he always thought that coming out of a twenty-fee railgun launch.” (308)   And as far as I can tell “Hacek” is not code for “Vinge”, although it should be.  Both are five letters, and Vinge pokes fun at his earlier novels in one paragraph about Hacekian criticism (309).

This part of the novel has some brief but still Gothic touches.  Listen to these:

“It’s like a haunted house.”  Juan’s voice was hushed.  His hand reached out and grasped hers; she didn’t shake him loose. She needed him to keep cool.  Certainly losing connectivity in the middle of an office building was an eerie thing. (241)

The stranger sighed.  “No, it’s too late for that,.”  He started toward them.  Behind her there was the snick of something hard on the floor and she saw dark things scuttling toward her. (244)


  1. What do you think happened to the great antagonists Gaz and Rabbit?  Why are their fates obscure?
  2. Bob Miller argues that Robert Gu is too awful a person to anchor the narrative.  Did that put you off as well?
  3. What did you make of the future high school experience?
  4. The final chapter is titled “The Missing Apostrophe”.  If that points to the novel’s title, does that refer to Robert finally finding Lena (the end of the rainbow)?  Or to her refusal to reconnect with him, ending his winning streak (the end of fine things)?
  5. The novel is more than a decade old.  How is it doing for technological prediction?
  6. What happened to politics in this future?  Elections and political parties don’t appear.  Is that an oversight, or a quiet hint of something darker?
  7. Is Rabbit human or AI or something else?
  8. The book ends with a conversation with a librarian.  What is Vinge pointing towards for the library’s future?

And what did you make of the whole book?

(Thank you for reading along!  I’ll start the next book quest soon.)

Posted in libraries, readings | Tagged | 5 Comments

Reasons to be optimistic about the future in 2017

What cheers me up in mid-2017?

The nature of my work means I have to spend a great deal of time with grim stuff.  In looking hard at the future of education I study (among other things): rising income inequality, the possibility of civil strife, increasing acceptance of surveillance, the possibility of automation-fueled neofeudalism, racism, sexism, the decline of the humanities, higher education slashing at its core, governments behaving at epic levels of stupidity – and that’s all from a quick glance at one document on one of my hard drives.  It doesn’t include climate change or existential threats.

sun over dark forestAs a futurist I have to be open to a range of possible futures.  They include ones that I personally find bad, and that others might fear as well.

So to stay sane, to keep my mind balanced, and to keep my work sharp and useful, I discipline myself to pay attention to positive trends when the negative ones loom too large.  I build positive, hopeful futures alongside the dystopias and collapses.

Here on this blog I tend to share a lot of bad news about education.  Perhaps too much.  In contrast I’ve tried to write about positive things, like digital creativity and the rising generations, the heroic work of community colleges and the rising access to the first year of college for poor people.  In this post let me add some more, identifying trends within and beyond education.

Caveat: I’m only writing here about major world trends.  I also turn to very small things for cheer, like the play of sunlight through rising plants, the antics of our cats, and the laughter of my wife and children.

Not in any particular order:

Storytelling. Thanks to the advent of the digital world, storytelling is now far more democratized than it was in most of the 20th century.  You don’t need to have access to a capital-intensive media center in order to get your tale out there.  Perhaps we’ll look back on our time as a new renaissance of popular narrative creativity.

Online creativity in general, like podcasting, fan culture, remixes, and game mods.  This development also includes game-based learning. As with digital storytelling, this is a democratic (lower case “d”, American readers) success.

Alternatives to copyright.  We have a broad-based movement -still small, but growing – to offer new ways to protect and access creative work.

TV shows (as opposed to “news“) (and as opposed to Hollywood movies) are suddenly awesome.  This renaissance has led to the fine problem of too much fine tv to watch.  For anyone who remembers when tv was a vast wasteland this is a staggering transformation.

Millennials and Generation Z. We (Gen X, Boomers, and beyond) have really handed them a lousy deal.  Between student debt, climate change, and global war, they are coming up in a really tough time.  They also have the bonus of Boomers loudly disdaining them (which is sad, offensive, and funny all at the same time).  None of this occurred below the radar or can only be realized through sophisticated analysis; it’s all openly done, public knowledge.

And in response?   Millennials and Gen Zers haven’t turned to nihilism or despair.  Neither have they started rolling out guillotines for us.  Instead, they… just get to work, from taking classes to serving in war to fighting for ill-paid internships. They turn to creativity in a variety of fields, including politics (Occupy, Black Lives Matter).  I honestly don’t think we older people deserve them.

(Combine the youngest generation and game-based learning, and what do you get?  A world peace game.)

Progress for women.  In the United States we currently see growing political traction on reducing sexual assault.  Women’s economic status is rising, and women have access to a wider range of careers than ever.  Women are increasingly free from mandatory childbirth, thanks to rising educational attainment, growing wealth, and cultural/policy shifts.

In education, women are now the majority of students in higher education.

Poverty is dropping.  The proportion of people living in poverty worldwide has been decreasing for several generations.  That’s mind-boggling, when you consider the scope and historical shift that represents.

Progress for LGBQT populations.  This is truly astonishing, when you think of how far we’ve come in a scant generation.  Think of the early 1980s, when gay sex was widely criminalized, gay-bashing a popular cultural sport, and many people (including national leaders) viewed AIDS as divine justice against sinning reprobates. Now?  Gay marriage has gone from science fiction to a social reality.  Transmen and -women are now recognized and publicly defended.

The lack of a Red Scare Even though the United States has been fighting its longest war against enemies defined largely by religion, we haven’t had an Islamic version of the anti-Communist Red Scares (1917-1920s, 1945-1950s).  There hasn’t been a massive American campaign against Muslims.  Instead, several presidents, including a religiously conservative Bush, led the way in celebrating Islam and condemning anti-Islamic behavior and rhetoric (for example).  There’s no new McCarthy, no updated Red Channels.  I don’t think we’ve really apprehended this.

We kill each other less than we used to.  While Steven Pinker’s 2011 book has some flaws, the data looks good for the world since 1945.  Deaths from wars and revolutions have gone down for a variety of reasons.  As a child of the Cold War’s last and scariest phase, I’m still sometimes astonished that we didn’t nuke the planet.  As is, my children are less likely to die in conflict than any people have been in history.

Increasing global communication and connection. It is easier to share information worldwide than it ever has been.  We can learn from, talk to, listen to, argue with, fall in love with a larger and more diverse population.  And we can connect on everything from art to work to politics.

Access to more information. The average person can get to more stuff than we ever have before.  Think about the variety of sources and the sheer amount of content.

Pluto!Science! We continue to grow what we know about the universe.  Despite America’s stupid retreat from human spaceflight, we keep sending robots spacecraft to new locations and learning more about already visited ones.  I’m still amazed we reached Pluto.  And we’ve been getting incrementally smarter for nearly 100 years.

More use of renewable energy. Installations of solar, wind, and hydro are up worldwide.  Prices are down.  Despite Trump’s repudiation of climate change, the international tendency is towards shifting away from carbon.

Advances in medical care (but not financing!) are helping people live longer, survive more horrors, better endure suffering, and compensate for injuries.  We know more about the human body than we ever have.  We stopped several recent diseases – SARS, Ebola – in their tracks.  This is astonishing, really.

At a personal level, I can count family members and dozens of friends who are healthier now than they would have been just 30 years ago.  Some now living would have been dead.

Some good inventions.  Think of improved non-oil power for cars, or the Tesla Powerwall, or ebooks, or 3d printing.

Earlier I mentioned digital creativity and the rising generations, the heroic work of community colleges and the rising access to the first year of college for poor people.  I still believe in those, so count and recount them in this list.

Yeah, we can find problems with each of  these trends. Yes, women still earn less than men, and there are some issues with lots of information, and there’s some anti-Islamic violence in the US, etc.  There are also interesting problems with pushing optimism, as Barbara Ehrenreich has shown. No, I haven’t read Johann Norberg’s book yet. I’m not part of this New Optimism wave.

In this post I’m just speaking about the bright side of the many trends I track.  Personally, keeping an eye on them – daily – helps improve my life and work.  I hope they helped you.

(thanks to Alan Levine for helping with this one)

Posted in futures | 6 Comments

How not to write about reading in 2017

Another day, another screed lamenting the decline of reading at the chilly hands of digital technologies.  This time it comes from one Philip Yancey, and offers a very Washington Post Goth/metal-sounding title: ‘”The death of reading is threatening the soul“.  (It sounds even better uttered out loud in that growling, Cookie Monster voice.)

I’m so, so very tired of these “the internet kills reading” articles.  I’ve been reading them since the 1990s, and very few are actually worth, well, reading.  Those that are count for a great deal with me, as I’m a lifelong bibliophile, recovering literature prof, and passionate reader.  So  Yancey’s plaint offers a good sampling of the many ways this can be done badly.  Oh, let me count the ways:

First, there’s no data at all.  There isn’t any attempt to research the field, or to point to serious studies.  Instead we get anecdotes from one person’s life, and a few pointers to much-criticized books.   Free advice: if you’re going to draw in Nicholas Carr, look instead to Maryanne Wolf.  Carr references her extensively, and her research is both more interesting and objective than his.

Me and one part of one bookshelf in one room of the house.

Me and one part of one bookshelf in one room of the house.  Only 3000 books, alas; I’ve cut down.

(And hey, two can play the writer’s reading life anecdote game.  I read a lot, it seems, partially enabled and even enhanced by digital technologies.  Depending on what I’m reading and my work schedule, I manage about 1-2 books per week, plus a ton of articles, chapters, blog posts, emails, reports, etc.  I don’t think I’ve read anything as long as Clarissa (Samuel Richardson, 1499 pages in the massive Penguin edition, like unto an old phone book) since I worked through it in grad school during the mid-1990s, but I comfortably manage 4, 5, and 600-page tomes as a matter of course.  Come to think of it, I did enjoy the Chinese classic Outlaws of the Marsh a couple of years back, which clocked in at around 1200 pages all told, so maybe I’m still good.

Technology enables some of this by making texts more easily available.  That is, I read public domain materials from Project Gutenberg on my laptops and a bunch of Kindle ebooks, mostly on my phone.  The digital world also gives me new forms for experiencing reading materials, namely through audio.  Audiobooks and short stories are constant companions when I drive, do housework, and work on the homestead outside.

Technology enhances my reading in a variety of ways.  I get to connect with fellow readers via Goodreads, as well as by folks on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.  I chat about reading with people on several podcasts. Many nonfiction books have poor maps, so I expand my understanding through Google Maps, Wikipedia, and whatever I can find online.  Amazon and many friends connected online do a good job of suggesting readings for me.

Despite my reading in silico, I remain a frequent visitor to any bookstore, library, or archive within reach.  The nearest public library sees me two to four times a week, along with the rest of my family.  I raid the nearest bookshop every few weeks; since I travel a great deal, I hit up whatever bookstore I can find wherever I end up.

So there’s my anecdote.  A single datapoint.  A sample size of exactly one.  May I generalize about human civilization and the fate of culture now?  Back to our target article…)

Second, if we grant the author his unproved, unestablished, apparently entirely subjective point that people (which ones?) are reading (which materials?) less, then we run into the problem that he makes no attempt whatsoever at looking into other explanations for that putative decline.  For example, Yancey doesn’t consider the role of other, non-“digital”* media in competing for our attention, such as tv, which is undergoing a golden age of fiction.  Maybe people are reading less and watching more.  Is anyone blaming a loss of book time on Orange is the New Black? (Anecdote time: my daughter worked in a library four years ago.  She observed that the leading category of checked out items was, by far, DVDs of tv shows.) . Yancey comes close to this, perhaps accidentally, when he lets slip that people spend more time on tv watching than social media practice (“less than the 608 hours the average American spends on social media, or the 1,642 hours watching TV”), but manages to veer back from that topic.

Yancey similarly doesn’t consider changing cultural or personal attitudes driven by non-technological reasons.  Perhaps the gig economy makes it harder to wrest a calm four hours to read, or pressing poverty makes it harder to work through texts.  A fraught political environment could encourage partisans to read more (for information and confirmation) or less (because they’re too busy arguing and organizing).  Maybe an aging population is reading less for a variety of reasons, including greater incidence of eye trouble.  I’m not advocating for these explanations, mind; I just want to point out the flaw in such a narrowly constructed single-factor argument.

It is a bit disturbing that Yancey provides some hard-reading role models for us… and they’re all billionaires.

Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg. Most of them … set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) for deliberate learning. For example:• Bill Gates reads 50 books a year.• Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks.• Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day.• Mark Cuban reads for more than three hours every day.• Arthur Blank…

I know these people lead lives of great busyness, but I think they have other advantages the average reader lacks.  They aren’t the best examples of devout readers for a general audience – unless the intended audience is well-paid professionals and aspirants to the 1%.

He also doesn’t allow for personal changes.  I don’t know Yancey personally, but maybe – just maybe – his habits are altering for other reasons.  He describes a lifelong study of theology; perhaps he’s worn out the field.  People do change tastes, especially over decades.  Again, I don’t know the man, but surely, in the full range of human development, this is something to consider.

Third, Yancey assumes that the online world is one based wholly on short attention spans.  In so doing he ignores digital experiences that work in the opposite way, by fostering sustained engagement.  I’ll grant you the blip-like nature of a single Angry Birds encounter, but insist as well on the importance of people playing other games for hours, even days at a time.  Consider AAA games, or augmented reality games, which are only playable through the exercise of sustained attention.  Or think of other digital media, such as DVD boxed sets or Netflix binge watching.  (Anecdote alert: my family loves to re-watch a single Babylon-5 season over a weekend, or two Peter Jackson extended edition Tolkien films in a row.)   While we can skim through tweets and Facebook updates at lightning speed, we can also dive into a single Kindle book for hours at a time.

reading technologies, a sample from 2015

reading technologies, a sample from 2015

Fourth, the article resolutely avoids any mention of digital objects and services that can enhance our reading experience.  I mentioned some of these above: digital maps, web-based reference materials, online long-form writing, public domain ebooks, and ebooks.  We could also add the way the web makes available some texts otherwise hard to find, especially in the broad world beyond an urban center.

Fifth, Yancey apparently sees no role for digital audio books.  I want to draw this out because it has a few different aspects.  Think of the visually impaired (again, remember America is aging), for whom an Audible or Librivox download returns access to the written (if spoken) word.  Think, too, about how audiobooks and podcast give us chances to read when we physically or ethically cannot: while driving, washing dishes, walking a dog, training across a metropolis, or working out.  I find it curious that most “the internet is killing Chaucer” screeds fail to mention digital audio either as villain or savior.  

Sixth, as with any complaint about a present day experience failing compared to the past, there’s the tendency to romanticize or airbrush history.  Yancey offers us this passage, which is probably supposed to be troubling:

When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links.

Before the Web, did nobody ever read a print text and looked ahead to see how long it was?  Did none of us lift weary eyes from a slogging reading to gaze upon a lovely hillside?  If we couldn’t stray to hyperlinks, couldn’t we slink off to other stories in an anthology, or the ads in a magazine?  Did we never skim or speed read (Evelyn Wood started teaching her method in the 1950s)? These apparently scary glimpses of a silicon-sodden present unfairly let the past off the hook.

I’ve written about this column at length because I think it’s exemplary, but did want to also draw attention to what might be an unusual aspect.  The author concludes by calling on us to read more (good!), then compares that discipline to another one:

I’ve concluded that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle, somewhat like the battle against the seduction of Internet pornography.

I haven’t seen many people make this comparison.  Is this intended to take up a culture wars banner from the right wing?  Or is this a nonpartisan warning from a different quarter, drawing on one segment of psychotherapy?   Either way it picks up on the author’s earlier theme about the biology of addition.  Perhaps we’ll see more of this, given the rising interest in addiction through the opioid crisis.

I hope these points are useful in helping people write better reflections on the relationship between technology and reading.  It’s a much more complex and balanced topic than columns like this aver, with fiery slogans like “We’re engaged in a war, and technology wields the heavy weapons.” (Again, that would sound better in a death metal growl.)  Denying that reality serves nobody well, least of all those of us who love reading and books, in whichever form we find them.

*I put digital in quotes because people often experience media we don’t think of as digital (music, movies, tv) through digital intermediaries: streaming audio, digital projection in theaters, Netflix, and so on.

(thanks to the indispensable Chris Lott)

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My new book is out

The New Digital Storytelling, revisedI just received print copies of the revised edition of my New Digital Storytelling.  They look very sharp, as well they should.  The designers and publisher did a fine job.

Since the first edition came out in 2011, many things have developed in the digital storytelling world, not to mention the broader technological sphere, so much updating was in order.  Every chapter has new examples, new approaches, and new ideas.  There’s an extra chapter on storytelling with virtual reality, since that topic is both new and deep.  Naturally, tons of footnote URLs have been updated, for those so concerned.

Some of you, dear blog readers, have helped in this process.  So I think people like Sandy Brown Jensen, Linda, Vanessa Vail, Bob, Sue Cornacchia, Howard Rheingold, Brett Boessen, Steven Kaye, Rodney Hargis, Annette S. L. Evans, Mike Wesch, Peter Naegele, Ed Webb, cristobalmalmberg, Andy Havens, Carine, jens, D’Arcy Norman, Chad Bergeron, Diane Convery, jwithers38, lisalebduska, Andrew Connell, and my great co-conspirators Barbara Ganley and Alan Levine.  And above all Joe Lambert and the StoryCenter crew.  And more.

You can order print and ebook editions from the publisher (Praeger), or get print and Kindle copies from Amazon.  Order ’em now!

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Student loans are cramping the American economy: what this could mean

Many people think student loans are a problem for American students in 2017.   The total amount of debt is enormous, a good number of students carry serious loans, some leave school owing money yet lacking academic credentials, etc.  I and others have been enumerating these problems for a while.

Could the negative impact of student loan debt reach even further?  Might the sheer size of $1.4 trillion in debt damage the broader American economy?

The New York Federal Reserve Bank just released a studying arguing that this is the case.  Specifically, a significant number of students now carry enough debt to prevent them from buying homes.  This in turn cramps the housing market and weakens overall national economic growth.

Zachary Bleemer, Meta Brown, Donghoon Lee, Katherine Strair, and Wilbert van der Klaauw (pdf) found that millennials loaded up with increasing debt were less likely to buy houses after leaving college.

the tuition hike and student debt increase… can explain between 11 and 35 percent of the observed approximate eight percentage-point decline in homeownership for 28-to-30-year-olds over 2007-15…

home ownership for 28-30 year olds by NY Fed

Why and how does this happen?  Simply put, debt holders (former students) will be more anxious about adding still more debt.  They might also have a harder time with banks.  “[Y]oung consumers who manage increased college costs by borrowing might be expected to experience decreased mortgage access.”

As a result,

We find that homeownership among 28-year-olds declined steadily from 24.4 percent in 2007 to 16.0 percent in 2015, an approximate 0.94% annual decline. We see a similar decline for homeownership at age 29 (0.91% annual) and a slightly smaller decline at age 30 (0.74 annual rate).

In chilly econ-speak:

The costs to the local economy of a shift of the cost of human capital investment onto the current young cohort are estimated to appear… in a more muted participation of the young cohort in the local housing market in years to come.

So that generation is harmed, if we consider home ownership to be a good thing, as many do. Graduates are more likely to live with their parents, and to have weaker savings for their eventual retirement. The broader economy grows more slowly as a result.  Student debt: what can’t it do?

Some interesting extra details:

  • The researchers’ dataset underrepresents student loan holding.  Their population is below the median circa $30K figure: “The mean student debt per capita among 24-year-olds in our sample is $6,715 with a mean of $3,902 in 2003 rising to a mean of $9,603 in 2011.”
  • Their modeling of costs does not include room and board (14).  As Sara Goldrick-Rab points out, this can be a crucial cost.
  • A key take-away: students keep going to college, despite rising prices (20).

Looking ahead, most signs point to student debt continuing to increase.  What does this suggest for the future of higher education?

Opposition to this knock-on effect of debt could play out in several ways.  Perhaps we’ll see major economic players (the real estate sector, at least) asking for debt reduction in some form: pressuring colleges to lower costs, lobbying states for more financial support.  This NY Fed analysis could be additional fodder for public universities lobbying state governments for increasing support – i.e., “please boost state system funding or the economy will suffer.”

Reaction against the expanded student debt issue could also take the form of cultural criticism.  Some may criticize millennials for harming economic growth, adding yet another way for millennial-bashing to proceed.  In a different way, dismay at the economic impact of student debt could fuel a cultural shift away from the college-for-everyone mindset (blog post coming up on that).

Alternatively, we could see acceptance of student debt appear as growing cultural support for less home ownership: a celebration of rental living, especially in cities, or approval of an expanded family unit.  The latter might tie into other cultural currents, namely how America processes its aging demographics.  Perhaps we’ll see three-generation households valued once more, either by conservatives (a return to strong, traditional families), progressives (increased care for the elderly), or both, in a rare sign of political bipartisanship.

I’d really like to know what the financial sector’s leaders think about this.  Increased debt is usually good for their business, in the form of fees.  Are they seeing a generation switching from housing to college debt?  Is this their preferred business model, or will they lobby for changes?

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