The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) just published a fascinating scenario for the future of America, and I’d like to share it here. It’s called “Fragmentation” and written by Elizabeth Merritt. Read the whole thing. It’s short and concise, but also tough stuff.
This story explores a version of 2040 in which the US populace has retreated into homogeneous digital and physical enclaves, the needs of an aging population go largely unmet, personal data fuels technological wealth, and privacy is a luxury good. The nation has calcified into three well defined cadres of wealth: the .1 percent, the 9.9 percent, and everybody else. Mega-philanthropists have taken on many traditional roles of government, and wield enormous influence in education, health, and public infrastructure.
Public school classrooms typically hold a hundred students or more—affluent families hire private tutors or pay for private schools. Higher education is unraveling from the combined forces of rising student debt, scandals surrounding for-profit diploma mills, and the decoupling of degrees from a living wage…
What interests me about this?
To begin with, the creators have drawn together a set of very plausible change drivers: increasing economic inequality, privatization, demographics, climate change, and immigration policy. Technological drivers and tech-enabled trends include a boom in fake news, a decline in privacy, and automation driving unemployment. These are all trends I’ve been tracking, and most I’ve also written about.
It’s an interesting scenario along the utopia-dystopia continuum. It’s not exactly a pure dystopia, since there isn’t any mention of authoritarian state policies and politics remain open (note the digital resistance plus the return of Occupy, which “has grown into a large, decentralized underground movement working for social and economic reform”), but it is certainly dark for many readers.
I was also struck by “Fragmentation”‘s vision of education. It sees K-12 as more privatized than it is now:
Many school districts depend on a small and shrinking tax base, and for-profit charter companies have siphoned off a large portion of the monies that remain. Public schools typically have a 1:100 teacher to student ratio and the principal role of educators is to supervise the massive classrooms where students sit at terminals, accessing instructional software. Affluent families typically send their children to private schools or hire tutors.
On the post-secondary front, Merritt sees higher ed as sliding down the peak’s wrong side:
Elite colleges and universities have thrived, buoyed by their endowments and by students able to pay hefty tuitions. While these wealthy institutions do provide full scholarships for many students, these subsidized spots barely make a dent in the national need for affordable higher education. A large number of second- and third-tier colleges and professional schools have closed in the face of declining enrollment, done in by two decades of rising student debt, scandals related to for-profit diploma mills, and the gradual decoupling of degrees from salaries that enable graduates to repay student debt.
Since “Fragmentation” appeared from a museum project, it’s only appropriate that it adds thoughts on that institution’s fate under this future. Fascinating to see museums not just responding to, but addressing some of these trends:
- In a society shaped by extreme wealth inequality, most museums fall into one of three categories: a growing number of “private” museums funded by affluent founders who retain a large measure of control over operations and content; profitable nonprofits that primarily serve the 10 percent of the population who can afford high admission fees; and small, mostly volunteer community museums that self-organize around local needs.
- In an effort to foster trust in their content, many museums commit to providing “open evidence”—comprehensive, publicly available documentation of the sources undergirding the museum’s exhibits and published materials. Museums have found that one particularly effective practice is to invite members of the skeptical public to examine original archives and artifacts, as, in an era of sophisticated digital fakery, analog evidence commands more trust.
- Museums that serve low-income neighborhoods often operate P-12 education cooperatives that offer a high-quality, affordable alternative to overcrowded public schools. Respect and appreciation for the work of these museum schools are major drivers of deep grassroots support for community museums.
The published scenario also adds discussion questions and links to evidence used in building it. It concludes by calling on readers to think and act. Very nicely done.
I do have questions about the scenario. Could Occupy really come roaring to life? Why not use the word “neoliberalism”? The description doesn’t mention political ideologies; should it, as one comment suggests?
But these are some of the questions scenarios are supposed to elicit. I hope to use this scenario in my work soon.