This week’s future signals: search, trains, pizza, and neoliberalism

It’s a crazy week, between selling the house and conducting two professional trips, but I have time to share three stories with some forecasting potential.  Consider them signals from possible futures.

ITEM: Google launched a college search function.  That’s how their blog post describes it; so far the reality seems to be a kind of web card or tile with various information bits attached.

For example, searching on Stanford brought this up on the right half of my Chrome browser window:

Google college search ex_Stanford

The linked blog posts offers examples from Yale, UCLA and Spelman College. Searching for Community College of Vermont brought up… nothing, besides the ordinary Google search.

Where does Google source this information?  To begin with, publicly available research:

This new experience uses public information from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a comprehensive data set available for 4-year colleges.

Then Google did some extra research on its own, without named partners: “We also worked with education researchers and nonprofit organizations, high school counselors, and admissions professionals…”  This is also ongoing, it seems: “we will continue to focus on how we can better improve access to information about educational opportunities.”

What are the implications here?  Obviously this is important for college and university recruitment, development, and marketing branches, given Google’s enormous lead in the search space.  Note as well that it builds on the federal College Scorecard, created by the Obama administration in its drive to improve American higher ed, and now in the hands of the Trump-DeVos team (and what are they doing with it, hm?).  How does Google handle this information?  With which experts and institutions are they partnering? Good questions.

How strongly will Google try to compete with the whole college admissions information industry?

How can users, be they individuals or universities, interact with Google to learn more or lobby for changes to any given information and its presentation?

Note, too, the way this instances the triumph of mobile over desktop: “We’re starting to roll out this new experience today on mobile with some features on desktop as well…”  Desktop is second place, clearly.

ITEM: Domino’s Pizza has launched a road-paving project.  Yes, you read that correctly.  As Yahoo News put it, “Domino’s Pizza unveils U.S. infrastructure project filling potholes”.

Dominos pavement

On Twitter, reactions touched on literary antecedents:

Jonathan Swerdloff expands on this on Facebook, offering a fine quote:

“When it gets down to it — talking trade balances here — once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here — once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel — once the Invisible Hand has taken away all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity — y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else:
microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery

–Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash – Published June 1992

And more:

What is the significance of this strange story?

As the above tweets suggest, this could be one example of private enterprise expanding its role in hitherto public spaces.  Towns and cities failing to repair damaged roads has become a public problem of late.  A good question is: why?  Is there a systematic reason for American roads’ decline, if they are, in fact, worse?  Does it tie into the sense that the nation’s infrastructure is failing?

On Facebook Jim Lai offered another read.  He noted that Domino’s is partnering with AAA to develop some kind of autonomous car pizza delivery service.

For the test, the Ford vehicles will be driven by humans but they will not be interacting with customers. Domino’s deliveries in the test program started in the Miami area last week.

“The last 50 feet of delivering goods is a real challenge,” said Jim Farley, executive vice president and president of global markets for Ford. “This will help us better understand how customers interact with vehicles when there is a delivery by an autonomous-drive vehicle.”

How would paving relate to this pilot?  Perhaps Domino’s and Ford deem American roads too prone to damage to allow reliable (semi)autonomous driving.

ITEM: back to Google, but on a very different front, that of the digital divide.  Google announced it had rolled out high speed WiFi to… 400 Indian train stations.

Google Station is now attracting 8 million users per month, each consuming around 350MB of data per session on average, according to Google VP Caesar Sengupta, who heads up the company’s “next billion users” team…

Why does this matter?  For one, it reminds us of the huge digital divide, despite its near invisibility from just about every technology conversation, including those in education.  Google Station is a creative solution.

For another, it tells us that, as I keep telling people, the future involves persistent trends and objects from the past.  Railroads are about as unsexy as dental surgery, at least in the United States, but they remain vital for certain functions and populations.

For a third, Google Station is yet another example of a private company expanding its efforts in what might have been a public space, or one served by governments.

VentureBeat reminds us of India’s position on the global digital stage, both as a nation with an important tech industry as well as one that’s the target of significant international investment.  How many people are paying attention to this?

Trains, pizza, pavement, search: it’s fascinating to see neoliberalism continue its 21st century progress.  And vital to see how this shapes the future of education.

Now I have to start my first road trip this week.  Let me know what you think of these stories and potential trends in the comments below.

(thanks to Naked Capitalism, Steven Kaye, and multiple friends across Facebook and Twitter)

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