The challenge of speed

Good point about how forecasters often miss very fast changes:

Tectonic shifts in the course of human events are almost never predicted ahead of time, even by the very people who stomp on the cracks…

Massive, fast-paced change, whether liberational, destructive, or just plain weird, is always and everywhere underpriced.

Gillespie and Welch offer some instructive, recent examples:

When asked in August 1989, only a few months after the electrifying demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, whether the communist East Bloc would ever be democratic and free in his lifetime, Czech economist Vàclav Klaus said no. Less than five months later, he was the first finance minister of a free Czechoslovakia. Morgan Stanley trader Howie Hubler lost $9 billion on a single stock market bet in 2007, not because he didn’t think the bubble of mortgage-backed derivative securities would pop, but because he couldn’t conceive of the price reduction exceeding 8 percent. For all but the last 10 days of 2007, the famed Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) trading system for predicting major-party presidential nominees established as its clear Republican favorite the famous ex-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. Yet, when it came time for people to actually vote in the primaries and caucuses, Giuliani lost in more than 40 states to Ron Paul, an obscure obstetrician/congressman whose name never even showed up on IEM’s 2008 election trading board despite his ending up with the fourth-highest number of delegates. 

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Scenarios for the future of medicine

Here’s a good example of scenario building: five stories about the future of academic medicine.  Each scenario offers an understandable and challenging take on that field in 2025.

As part of the process the organizing group took time to develop a consensus list of drivers:

(thanks to Luis Calingo)

a/Udacity of/and the future

My colleagues at NITLE and I are very excited about this new development in the Stanford AI MOOC.  The professor who taught it is leaving his tenured(?) post at Stanford to found an independent for-profit education venture.  In some ways this portends a future scenario for higher education where students and faculty are displaced from the old model and institutions of higher education, roaming free and meeting as the displaced Samurai Ronin in feudal Japan. Though in this case, it doesn’t seem like the institution was keeping him from doing this (in fact, they’ve expanded their offerings based on his success.) He just likely thinks he can make more this way – and so, evidently, does Charles River Ventures who appears to be funding it.

According to this piece, they are part time instructors, not tenured profs (though this may be in reference to two other profs at Stanford who are starting a similar project, but aren’t sure if they will try to spin it off into a for-profit entity like Udacity.) Great Ronin-esqu quote here:

the students each got a letter with their grade and class rank, signed by the professors. No Stanford seal, just the professor’s name and signature. “It raises the question: Whose certification matters, for what purposes?” Michael Feldstein, a widely read educational technology blogger, told Inside Higher Ed at the time. “If individual professors can begin to certify student competence, [then] that begins to unravel the entire fabric of the institution itself.”

More posts covering this announcement:

  • this post above notes that the first class [how to build a search engine] is taught by someone from Google, and a Google exec provided a plug for the course.)
  • more here from Rueters – which I think was one of the first places for the announcement. On the question of pedagogy, he defers to the darling of Bill Gates, et. al. It’s worth noting that his style must have been mostly lecture-based to begin with since he was teaching a class of 200.)

Thrun was eloquent on the subject of how he realized that he had been running “weeder” classes, designed to be tough and make students fail and make himself, the professor, look good. Going forwards, he said, he wanted to learn from Khan Academy and build courses designed to make as many students as possible succeed — by revisiting classes and tests as many times as necessary until they really master the material.

But note here: Thrun doesn’t help them master the material. He gives them materials to help them master the ideas, on their own. One-on-one in this context means one person watching another one on a screen. It’s still largely autodidactic and the subject matter (programming) is much further on the continuum of unambiguous topics, i.e. there may be debates, but there are often clear answers to questions of programming language. It would be far more difficult to scale humanities classes, writing intensive classes, or even social sciences classes to this level. Not that it can’t be done, but as my NITLE colleague Rebecca Davis pointed out, there is little innovation in pedagogy here.

On the other hand, it is interesting to imagine what this credential will do in the future. Students get a letter with their class rank – i.e. I was student 314,567 out of 500,000 in the Spring 2014 edition of this class. There is a very specific context in which this credential will have value. The global community of programmers and computer scientists will be able to interpret the significance of this credential based on their knowledge of this highly visible, nay celebrity, class. But as usual the focus (especially in the Reuters piece) is on the cream of the crop (“248 students out of 160K got perfect scores”). It is laudable that these students – all of whom were far away from Stanford’s campus – were so well equipped (though it’s worth noting many of them could have been advanced computer scientists simply interested in the course as a kind of game). But what does it mean to be in the bottom fifth of a class of 500,000? Just that you’re a loser? Is there any possibility that you just have a different learning style that doesn’t translate to this model? Does it matter if your future career will depend on it?  And does it mean anything to be in the top fifth of a MOOC? How many of your fellow students might be third world “credential farmers” (a la gold farmers) or even AI computers being trained to learn how to do this farming automatically?  It wouldn’t take long for these subsidiary industries to catch on once it is seen as a ticket to a good job.

My next thought was that it would be hard to imagine what it would mean 5, 10 or 15 years after you take it. I suppose that doesn’t matter since by that time you’ll have had (hopefully) several jobs on top of it. And, I suppose, if the model catches on, Udacity will get a roster of alumni to build the brand.

The other trend this could point to, especially if Google is somehow involved, is the direct training of high tech labor by the companies who want to hire them. Gates is always complaining about the lack of qualified students here. This would be a workaround. Instead of giving students apprenticeships once they finish college to complete their training, simply establish an online college that trains students in the most streamlined way possible, then hire the top 0.1%. It’s unlikely to create the kind of independent, critical thinking they say they want, but it makes it easier to skim people off the top and drop them directly into the work you want them doing. Of course, it means that, for possible workers, the training they might receive, free as it might be, will be valuable mostly to the company that provides the training. If you don’t make the cut in that online class, you’ll need to go take one with Apple or Adobe until you are able to figure out what your strengths are or if you belong in one of the few lucrative professions left in the US or if you would have been better off (or happier) going into social work. From a public policy standpoint, in other words, this would largely be another example of what Siva Vaidhyanathan might call a “public failure” – a concept he develops in relation to the Google Books project.

Public failure [in contrast to market failure, its mirror image] occurs when the instruments of the state cannot satisfy public needs and deliver services effectively. This failure occurs not because the state is the inappropriate agent to solve the particular problem (although there are plenty of areas in which state service is inefficient and counterproductive); it may occur when the public sector has been intentionally dismantled, degraded, or underfunded, while expectations for its performance remain high.  Examples of public failures in the United States include military operations, prisons, health care coverage, and schooling.  The public institutions that were supposed to provide these services were prevented from doing so.  Private actors filled the vacuum, often failing spectacularly as well and costing the public more than the institutions they displaced.  In such circumstances, the failure of public institutions give rise to the circular logic that dominates political debate.  Public institutions can fail; public institutions need tax revenue; therefore we must reduce support for public institutions.  The resulting failures then supply more anecdotes supporting the view that public institutions fail by design rather than by political choice.

It’s quite possible that Udacity will be a tremendous success at delivering the kind of content it delivers.  And in so far as it is, we should do all that we can to learn from it and genuinely integrate those lessons into the dominant model of post-secondary education.  On the other hand, I think this kind of course has a very specific purpose, one which will be better complemented by a broader education that allows for more structured forms of play, interaction and discussion built into its pedagogy.  I’m very curious, for instance, to hear what Cathy Davidson might say about this model.  I think her first observation would be the way it individualizes the students and prevents them from learning from one another.  I wonder what it would look like – and what effect it would have on the class – if students built some sort of social platform alongside this to do collaborative learning exercises.

In either case, it would seem that most people would need to have more than a single class to build up a fungible credential portfolio.  Whether they would need the equivalent of 40 classes across a range of disciplines or not is up for discussion.  And much of this may simply depend on what it seems people need in order to get jobs.  I suppose the question then becomes how much we want to make the future education of our country based solely on the narrow vocational concerns of the few remaining “job creators.”  It’s a hard question to ask right now.  They say there are no atheists in foxholes; humanists in recessions fair only slightly better.

Stretching the trendlines into 2012

The World Bank looks ahead to the rest of 2012, and isn’t very happy.

The world economy has entered a dangerous period….

[G]lobal growth and world trade have slowed sharply….

Here’s why.  The Bank takes current trends and projects their continuation forward:

Some of the financial turmoil in Europe has spread  to developing and other high-income countries, which until earlier had been unaffected. This contagion has pushed up borrowing costs in many parts of the world, and pushed down stock markets, while capital flows to developing countries have fallen sharply. Europe appears to have entered recession. At the same time, growth in several major developing countries (Brazil, India and, to a lesser extent, Russia, South Africa and Turkey) is significantly slower than it was earlier in the recovery, mainly reflecting policy tightening initiated in late 2010 and early 2011 in order to combat rising inflationary pressures.

It’s a good example of big-picture, research-informed trend extrapolation.

Less tech, more social

Beware too great a focus on technology, advises Jamais Cascio.  There are many good reasons to focus on tech, but that can let us overstate its importance.  Social transformation is harder to forecast, yet usually more significant.

Visualizing different futures

Here’s a neat way to chart different models of the future, from a Morgan Stanley presentation.

This one connects two different outcome series, one for the US and one for the European Union.

Here they quantify likelihood:

Some successful long-term predictions

Sometimes futurists score well in predictions.  The BBC notes that the 1900 Ladies’ Home Journal forecast we blogged last week was actually pretty good.  Most of Watkins’ guessed turned out to be right.

It’s a fun list to go through, especially as many of the predictions panned out early in the 20th century.

A big pile of 2012 predictions

Here’s a nice sampler of 2012 predictions.

It’s interesting to think about these off-the-cuff-, method-free futures as a genre.  First, they appeal to authority.  A leading tech journal opines on tech, as does a major innovator.  The Economist speaks to, well, everything.

Second, they are small-picture items.  A gadget, a standard, a new practice: that’s about it.  Very micro.

Futuring from the Ladies’ Home Journal

Some fun futuring from the past:


(thanks to Jesse Walker)

Ladies Home Journal FTW (on predictions)

In yesterday’s BBC News Magazine, Tom Geoghegan has a rundown of several predictions made by John Elfreth Watkins in the early 20th century.  Watkins wrote an article titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years” for the Ladies Home Journal.  Geoghegan builds from an earlier overview of the article by Jeff Nilsson in The Saturday Evening Post, but also queries Patrick Turner from the World Future Society on how well these predictions were made.  Overall, he was quite prescient.  Moreover, he was very upbeat.  In Nilsson’s words, “Every one of his predictions involved an improvement in the lives of Americans. He saw only positive change in the new century. Today’s predictors don’t see the future so optimistically, but will they see it as clearly as Watkins?”  Some of those positive changes, predicted correctly:

  • Digital color photography
  • Rising height (correctly predicted at 2″) and increased life expectancy (lowballed: he says 50; it was 77) of Americans
  • Slower population growth
  • Mobile phones, networked computing, television, or something like them
  • Pre-prepared meals (some Hungry Man eaters may dispute this as necessarily “positive;” also he was wrong in that they unfortunately are not delivered to every household by pneumatic tube.)
  • Central heating and A/C
  • Hothouse vegetables, bigger fruit, household refrigerators, and refrigerated transport of produce across the country and the hemisphere
  • cheaper cars
  • airplanes, armored tanks, and high speed trains

What is more interesting to me, however, are the things he got wrong (and, perhaps, why).  In some cases, he might just be ahead of the curve – such as his prediction that all wild animals will be extinct (no mention of electric sheep).  In others, it is clearly a lot of political pressure that kept what was a reasonable expectation from taking hold.  Two stand out especially clearly.

The first is his prediction that, in Geoghagen’s paraphrase, there will be no cars in large cities. In Watkins’ words, “All hurry traffic will be below or above ground when brought within city limits.”  What this meant to Watkins was that people would walk, take moving walkways or trains around the city rather than driving.  This was a reasonable prediction – and would have been a reasonable way to build sustainable cities, were we at all interested in that.  At the end of the 19th and for much of the early 20th century, this was largely the trajectory, with cars being only a small component in the transportation ecosystem of major cities.  Electric streetcars, for instance, were a common utility run by municipalities across the country.  Among the changes necessary for the transformation to take hold: car companies like General Motors bought up street car systems (bought them up, that is, and eliminated them), and they were aided in their efforts by various laws, subsidies and eventually nationwide projects of investment.  As Guy Span summarizes this 20th century transformation:

While GM was engaged in what can only be described as an all out attack on transit, our government made no effort to assist traction whatsoever and streetcars began to fade in earnest after the Second World War. In 1946, the government began its Interstate Highway program, with lots of lobbying from GM, arguably the largest public works project in recorded history. In 1956, this was expanded with the National Interstate Highway and Defense Act. Gas tax funds could only be spent on more roads. More cars in service meant more gas taxes to fund more roads. And we got lots of roads.

More and better roads doomed the interurban electric railways and they fell like flies. Outstanding systems like the Chicago North Shore Line (which operated from the northern suburbs into Chicago on the elevated loop until 1962) were allowed to go bankrupt and be scrapped. The Bamburger between Salt Lake City and Ogden failed with its high-speed Brill Cars in 1952. Today, arguably only two of the vast empire of interurban systems survived: The Philadelphia and Western Suburban Railway – aka the Red Arrow Lines (now a part of SEPTA) and the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railway (now state owned). And highways had everything to do with this extinction.

The United States government, state agencies, and local communities allowed these systems to fail. In the District of Columbia, Congress ordered the elimination of streetcars over the strong objections of the local owners and managers. The government was doing its part.

So let’s not forget the words of Charlie Wilson when asked if there were a conflict with his former employer (GM) on his possible appointment to Secretary of Defense in 1953. He replied, “I cannot conceive of one because for years, I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

In other words, whatever the benefits of cars over trains or streetcars, we’ll never know who could have won in that fight because, in all cases, the only way one or the other of these highly capital-intensive systems would become dominant was through public policy and state investment – and the palm-greasing and arm-twisting known as lobbying that make those things happen.  Watkins, in other words, wasn’t wrong in terms of technology: he just incorrectly predicted who would be able to graft the system better.  Streetcars, subways and intercity trains held the lead for the last quarter of the 19th and first quarter of the 20th century: then the power shifted to a new set of titans.  Go figure.  This should be a lesson to all the people who look today at Apple or Google for predictions of what the next 100 years will look like.  We should probably look downmarket for the people who will be willing to get their hands dirty with all the sick lobbying they’ll need to do to win the future.

Second, Watkins predicts that college education would be “free to every man and woman.  Here he was an excellent predictor of the post-industrial needs (and capabilities) of US society.  In fact every man and woman probably should have higher education – though what that means has certainly shifted over the past century.  We’ve come a long way from the levels of education at that point, and until recently, many European countries were close to providing this.   As Doug Henwood points out, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to do this:

It would not be hard at all to make higher education completely free in the USA. It accounts for not quite 2% of GDP. The personal share, about 1% of GDP, is a third of the income of the richest 10,000 households in the U.S., or three months of Pentagon spending. It’s less than four months of what we waste on administrative costs by not having a single-payer health care finance system. But introduce such a proposal into an election campaign and you would be regarded as suicidally insane.

This lack of political will has resulted not only in making not free, but has made it more difficult to even pay for the loans necessary to get through college at the current rates (as he points out above, the increase in sticker price tuition is almost directly proportional to the decrease in state funding of higher ed.)  The result is that the US population is losing its lead among OECD countries (even among High School diploma attainment) and current generation of US citizens will be the first to have less (formal) education than their parents.

Like the prediction about cars (and likely, most of Watkins predictions) his prediction about higher education is not hobbled by technology (at least not only) or demand (at least not directly).  Much of this is, instead, the result of particular policies and funding priorities.  Still, it is impressive that, at the height of Robber Baron supremacy Watkins could imagine a society so publicly minded.  Perhaps we should take a cue from his positive outlook – and try to make it more likely (politically and socially) in the next century.