Saturday, December 22, 2012

Singularity University and the New Economy

“There’s really no other institution,” explains Ray Kurzweil, “that studies the exponential growth of information technology and how it can solve the major problems of the world.”

Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google, sees such emphasis on information technology as the unique contribution to U.S. higher education of his brainchild, Singularity University (SU). This, however, is not the only unique feature of SU. The university is perhaps the most developed example I have encountered of Slaughter and Rhoades’ academic capitalism theory.

SU takes its name from Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, and, more generally, from the concept of technological singularity. In the book, Kurzweil predicts that we are approaching a moment in which it is possible through the study of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics to see artificial intelligences that surpass the cognitive abilities of the human brain and medical advancements that overcome the limits of human biology. 

Entrepreneur and scientist Peter Diamandis was inspired enough by Kurzweil’s ideas to suggest building upon the model of the International Space University and create an institution of higher learning. After convening a meeting at NASA Ames Research Center with “50 of the leading thinkers” in 2007, SU was founded. It runs two academic programs at its campus in Silicon Valley: a nine-week summer graduate studies program and an executive program.

The curriculum of these programs is closely tied to Kurzweil’s book, which is perhaps not surprising, given that he is the Chancellor. The institution’s short history is described via a TED Talk Kurzweil gave on technological singularity. Students take courses on:

Future Studies and Forecasting
Policy, Law, and Ethics
Networks and Computing Systems
Biotechnology and Bioinformatics
Medicine and Neuroscience
AI, Robotics, and Cognitive Computing
Energy and Ecological Systems
Space and Physical Sciences

Not exactly the liberal arts. Then again, SU is fairly clear about its mission to “assemble, educate and inspire a new generation of leaders who strive to understand and utilize exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Who are these leaders? Based on the website, they are attractive, highly accomplished young people from around the world. SU profiles one past participant in the categories of entrepreneur, policy influencer, academic, big thinker, NGO leader, and technologist. The bottom line is that, unless you are a Business Week Entrepreneur Award Winner or Harvard Medical School student, you likely won’t earn one of 80 spots out of 1,600 or so applicants.

What do students get from their SU experience? Diamandis underscores the interdisciplinary nature of SU: “if you come in as an expert in nanotechnology, you’re going to learn about molecular genetics, you’re going to learn about medicine and human enhancement, and AI and robotics…you’re going to learn the vocabulary, you’re going to find partners to start new companies.” This is just one of the ways in which the lines between institution of higher learning and business incubator are blurred at SU. To top it all off, students also get access to a global network of geniuses-to-be and budding millionaires.

The university gets its funding from a string of corporations and venture capital funds, including Google, Nokia, and LinkedIn. These corporations will have first pick of students to fill any vacant positions on their research and development teams. Therefore, any major problems that are solved at SU come not from research conducted at the university itself, but rather from corporations funding the institution or companies started by students. This is a university created by the private sector for the private sector.

With its concentration on select domains of knowledge, corporate sponsorship, business incubation, and other marketeering activities, SU epitomizes the interplay between higher education and the new economy. The new economy, in the words of Slaughter and Rhoades, “treats advanced knowledge as a raw material that can be claimed through legal devises, owned, and marketed as a product or service.” SU clearly caters to those with advanced knowledge that can be transformed into marketable products or services. Any solutions generated by SU to save humanity will need to be purchased.

The mechanisms through which higher education connects to the new economy constitute what Slaught and Rhoades call an “academic capitalist knowledge regime.” This regime "values knowledge privatization and profit taking in which institutions, inventor faculty, and corporations have claims that come before those of the public.” By contrast, the public good knowledge regime, as the name implies, views “knowledge as a public good to which the citizenry has claims.” The authors acknowledge that these two regimes are starkly differentiated only for analytical purposes. In reality, there is substantial overlap.

Although SU is emblematic of the academic capitalist knowledge regime, other institutions, including publicly funded colleges and universities, are connecting to the new economy, adopting practices found in the private sector, and seeking new sources of revenue. At my own institution, the University of Maryland, state funding per student has steadily declined over the past decade. In order to remain competitive and retain top faculty, campus leaders have looked to sources of revenue beyond dwindling government appropriations. 

These sources include the University of Maryland University College, an online education profit center. Additionally, the university unveiled M Square, which is public-private partnership with a real estate investment trust designed to offer “incubator space for start up companies” and “build to suit options for larger technology clients in Maryland’s largest research park.” Most recently, the Honors College launched a new living-learning program dedicated to advanced cybersecurity education. Defense contractor Northrop Grumman helped fund the program, and students are eligible for internships and mentorship opportunities at the corporation.

My point is not to predict a corporate take-over of U.S. higher education. The state, big business, and higher education have always been inextricably linked. It is rather to highlight the new types of relationships emerging as higher education positions itself as a key site of knowledge production in an economy whose competitiveness hinges upon harnessing educated workers and advanced technology.

The singularity may be near, but it is also, frankly, creepy. Forgive me for not sharing Kurzweil's enthusiasm for robotic red blood cells. Singularity University is likewise problematic, signaling a shift with clear implications for social justice in American higher education. As the state rolls back funding of higher education, the public good functions of universities retreat with it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Power of Proximity

There’s an old adage that says, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder.” People used to offer me this slice of unsolicited wisdom when I was in a long distance relationship. It was their way of introducing optimism into a difficult situation. My response was often to smile and nod—not because I agreed with them, but rather because I knew how rarely distance actually strengthens a relationship. In my case, distance was a constant challenge. It was an obstacle that we learned to overcome. Thankfully, we eventually found our way to the same city, and we’re still together today.

I share this personal reflection because, as someone who lives far from my family, I often think about distance around the holidays. It’s an almost inescapable part of this time of year. Friends are talking about travel plans over dinner. Post offices are bustling with business, as people hurry to ship gifts to loved ones. I even get a few out-of-state holiday cards. Most of us, it seems, contend with the fact that those who matter to us are not ideally located. We go to great lengths to throw ourselves back into their lives around December, even though we may not have seen or talked to them in months.

What this means, to me, is that when the festive lights come down and trees are carried to the curb, proximity once again governs our everyday relationships. Those who really know our story experience it with us in real-time. They are the people we turn to in times of need. They are our weekend plans. They are present not just for the milestones, but also for the pebbles that collectively constitute day-to-day life. For me, many of these relationships are with friends, some of whom I’ve only know for a few years.

We like to think that these people will be with us forever, and, if we’re lucky, they are. However, if either you or they move, the relationship fundamentally changes. Think of those high school or college friends who now live in a different city or state. They were a commanding part of our lives for four or more years. Yet without some sort of sustained, physical presence, the relationship is transformed into an occasional phone call, visit over the holidays, or Facebook status update.

There’s nothing remarkably new about this observation. The very definition of a relationship is that it involves at least two people relating to one other. Closeness makes the ability to relate all the easier. What intrigues me is that many people seem to increasingly think we are capable of overcoming distance with technology. We see Skype, Twitter, Facebook, FaceTime, and similar communication innovations as ways of connecting with people, irrespective of the space between us. In reality, technology will never be able to replace what can only be achieved by being there with someone. I’ve been thinking through a few reasons for this.

Skype and FaceTime are amazing applications, and the former, in particular, has been indispensable to me. When I travel abroad, it is the best way I can communicate with my wife. However, we do not greatly enjoy talking to screen projections, or putting up with frequent disconnections. We are able to tolerate Skype because we know it is a temporary fix. After a month, I return home, and Skype won’t be opened for another year or more. For those who use Skype to talk with loved ones in a more permanent way, it comes to function in much the same way as the telephone. Conversations may be frequent, even daily. And they are surely enhanced by the ability to see our friends or family members’ emotions. Nevertheless, at their core, these conversations are most often recaps of daily or weekly experience. In the process of explaining our lives to other people, we summarize, censor, and suffer from the inherent shortcomings of memory.

Twitter and Facebook offer even less in helping us overcome distance and maintain our relationships. Twitter is designed for rapid, regular bits of information. At its worst, Twitter is a conduit for vanity—a 21st century journal that supplants introspection with spectacle. At its best, it is a tool of the 24-hour news machine: just consider how many Twitter handles the staff of The Huffington Post manage.

Facebook gives a sense of intimacy and knowledge about others. However, this intimacy is an illusion. What we share on Facebook is a carefully crafted version of ourselves.  Some even term our individual collection of “likes,” “shares,” and “posts” the “aspirational self”—not who we are, but who we desire to be. No matter what name you give it, our relationships on Facebook are shallow. As Malcolm Gladwell has correctly pointed out, such widely dispersed, loose connections are precisely the purpose of “The Social Network.” These days, I turn to Facebook to sate my thirst for information, not because I think it presents a viable alternative to in-person interaction.

This does not mean I intend to delete my Facebook account or stop using Skype. Rather, I advocate recognizing the limitations of technology, better valuing proximity to those who matter to us, and taking stock of the consequences of mobility. We need to think critically about what has caused us to be so distant from friends and family in the first place. It is sometimes the case that we have no control over our separation from others because of obligations or cruel circumstances. However, more often than not, it is the product of choices.

We live in a society in which it is common to move multiple times, often in search of proverbial greener pastures. Simply put, mobility is a defining feature of our generation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker stays at a job for 4.4 years. We hopscotch from city to city—job to job—and look to technology to help us feel close to the people that we left behind (or the people who left us). When it inevitably fails to live up to expectations, we fill the void by starting new relationships with people close to us. Relationships seem to fall into a cyclical pattern as we respond to frequent movement.

As I drive to my hometown for the holidays, making the seven-hour car trip to reinsert myself in the lives of my family members after months of being apart, I can’t help but think about how much of my life they have missed. How difficult it is to catch them up to speed, to help them understand my challenges and triumphs. I try not to get frustrated when they don’t know what I really do for a job, or can’t place the names of the new friends with whom I regularly spend time. All they know is what can be gleaned from social media and the synopsis I deliver over the telephone. Most importantly, I don’t blame them for the distance between us. I own that distance, and the decisions that created it.

From long car trips to holiday cards, there’s no doubt that we seasonally remember our roots, paying homage in December to all the people and places that feel like home. Perhaps instead of going to such great lengths to reconnect after frequent moves, or hoping technology can make physical distance irrelevant, we should simply pause: respect the power of proximity and give our roots time to sink in somewhere.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

All Folked Up

In the car a few days ago, I heard two songs on the radio, back-to-back, that caused me to pause and reflect. The first song was “Little Talks” by the Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men and the second was Mumford and Son’s new single “I Will Wait”. Making the experience all the more striking was that these two songs were preceded and followed by pop artists like Nicki Minaj or Katy Perry. Although it’s difficult to place bands like Mumford and Sons in a genre, their sound certainly differs from the majority of pop musicians whose work populates the airwaves. Some would classify these bands as “folk”, or perhaps less definitively as “folksy”.

It is easy to see and hear something in these bands that reflects the form, themes, styles, and aesthetics of folk music. Take, for example, the instruments they use in their songs. In place of synthesizers or electric guitars, we often hear what we consider “traditional” instruments, those accessible to the “common man”, like the banjo, fiddle, and harmonica. Additionally, these bands clearly attempt to take on a “backwoods” or “down country” persona, wearing clothing that conveys simplicity, age, and wear—the fashion equivalent of patina.

Song lyrics don’t reference cell phones or nightclubs, but rather rural landscapes, manual labor, and, occasionally, passages or figures from the Bible. The Head and the Heart, an indie/folk outfit out of Seattle (shocking, I know), intone in their song “Lost in My Mind”:

How’s that bricklayin’ coming
How’s your engine runnin’
Is that bridge gettin’ built
Are you hands gettin’ filled

Fellow Seattleites, Fleet Foxes, more explicitly demonstrate these themes in the title track off their 2011 album Helplessness Blues:

If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm raw
If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore

And you would wait tables and soon run the store

Is there reason to believe we are in the midst of a folk revival? Purists would argue no. They see folk music as part of a largely oral tradition in which songs have been passed down for generations. That continuity is the key. The bands described above are, for the most part, performing music they have written and embodying styles they have invented. They are creating novel cultural products with recourse to the past (see Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s work on heritage for more on this). In this sense, today’s folk artists aren’t reviving anything. They are simply making a statement in the present with the vocabulary of the past.

Regardless of whether or not we can call the popularity of this “folk” music a revival, it is unquestionably popular. What is it that makes songs harkening back to simpler times and porch-front banjo picking so compelling to many people today? One possible answer came to me while listening to the newest Mumford and Sons album. A familiar song started playing, which I identified as Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”. Here we had a contemporary folk band resurrecting a song from the 1960s folk revival.

If we are witnessing a folk revival, it certainly isn’t the first (or best example of) one. There was another moment of folk consciousness in the 1930s and 1940s, epitomized in Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads. The collection featured traditional folk songs Guthrie learned from migrant workers, as well as original compositions chronicling his travels from Oklahoma to California. Guthrie is often cited among a list of folk artists from the 1930s and 1940s that inspired a later generation of folk artists in the 1960s, including Bob Dylan.

Serious fans of folk music would likely cringe at even implicating that Mumford and Sons belongs to a lineage stretching back to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. For one thing, Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan both used their music to promote social justice (with the former supporting labor and the latter supporting the civil rights and anti-war movements). Yet, there is a common thread running through the work of these artists. All of them emerged in response to temporal demand for something traditional, a connection to the past.

Much like the 1930s, we are living in a period of economic crisis. And similar to the 1960s, our social world is increasingly marked by rapid, sometimes jarring, change. In the words of Dylan, “times, they are a changin’”. In the face of such crisis and change, we seek solace in the past. Nostalgia for what has been replaced and remorse for what has been lost take root. It is during times like these that folk music comes to enjoy enormous currency. We might even think of folk music as a type of coping mechanism. 

So the songs that struck a chord within me as I listened to the radio may not truly be folk music. We know that many of these bands are fabricated to meet the demand of the day. After all, Of Monsters and Men is from Iceland, prompting questions about exactly whose folk they are representing and celebrating. It is also clear that what I heard is less a revival of pure folk music than a new creation with a folksy veneer.

Despite these truths, I took comfort in the songs and sang along. For a brief moment, I could at least pretend to commune with the world being left behind as I drove forward. Who knows how long this folk moment will last, but if Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan are any indication, there’s staying power to music that forces us to look back in the rearview mirror—music that reminds us to remember.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Chipotle Effect

I live in a college town. More specifically, I live in a sorority to the most popular bar in town. Needless to say, any night of the week between the hours of 11PM and 2AM, except Sunday night, is an adventure.

In the five years that I have lived here, and for several more before my arrival, the town’s development was stagnant. When the recession hit, the few development projects under consideration came to a sudden halt as uncertainty and risk-aversion took hold of even the most speculative of real estate investors. Those projects have since been reignited, and ground has broken on new hotels, apartments, and supermarkets. However, in the intervening years, the only new businesses to spring up in town were those with the highest probability of succeeding: restaurants.

What is interesting is that the restaurants that opened and came to dominate the eat scene are derivations of the same model, essentially the Chipotle-pioneered assembly line. Whether its Jason’s Deli, Lime, Potbelly, Roti, Saladworks, Chidogos, Jimmy John's, Bobby's Burger Palace, Yogiberry, or Five Guys, all of these restaurants specialize in grab-and-go eating. You walk up to a register, choose a “platform” (e.g., sandwich bread, salad bowl, burrito tortilla), pick your toppings, and either grab a seat or hit the road. No need for waiters or waitresses in this model, or for tipping. If you decide to eat in the restaurant, which is sometimes made difficult by the relatively small number of actual tables, the whole experience takes no more than twenty minutes.

In many ways, the popularity of these restaurants makes perfect sense. They are quick, inexpensive, and offer a fair amount of flavor diversity. Franchisers and restaurateurs are simply responding to market demand. However, if we take a step back, we must wonder how this consumer preference came to exist. And if seemingly every new restaurant that pops up assumes this form, we must ask how this space is shaping—in what I call the Chipotle effect—the way college students think, behave, and relate to one another.

Many intellectuals have noted that we are living in an era of unprecedented, even celebrated, individualism. They see evidence of this individualism in the declining rates of participation in civil society and community (see Bowling Alone). They likewise see it in changing conceptions of the family, with more and more young people choosing to put off marriage and having children until they establish themselves, complete their degrees, or enjoy youth unburdened by responsibilities beyond self-gratification (see Bobos in Paradise). The assembly line restaurant model should be seen as an expression of this individualism. You are able to take a more or less flavor neutral piece of bread or tortilla and individualize it to your liking.

As I thought about the other types of projects that constitute redevelopment in the area, I realized that there are other spaces catering to individuation. Take, for example, student housing. Many of the new apartment complexes, which, by the way, are constructed above retail spaces featuring Chipotles and similar establishments, have adopted a uniform set-up. Students have their own bedroom and bathroom, with a shared kitchen and common area. There can be as many as four or five individual bedrooms to an “apartment”. Students have fewer opportunities to accessorize their rooms as they could a burrito, but the space is, nevertheless, theirs alone. Given the exorbitant amount students pay for a bedroom in these set-ups, it is perhaps foolish to argue that they should have anything less than their own, separate domain.

Yet research suggests that students, particularly those in their first year, have higher grades and are more likely to stay at a university if they live in traditional residence halls, where they share a large bathroom and live with a roommate in an admittedly small space. I recognize that not all students are able to live on campus, nor does this generic conclusion capture the experience of all students. But it does imply that, rather than merely selecting where we eat or sleep based on our preferences, we are also profoundly affected by the spaces we regularly inhabit.

Herein lies the potential problematic of the Chipotle effect. If increasingly we navigate spaces that encourage our individualism, do our interactions become brief, passing, or diluted? When we devote so little time to sitting down for a meal, what activities fill the void? For me, when I take away lunch from one of these restaurants, I don’t use the time gained in any useful way. I eat in front of my laptop, perusing Facebook—alone. If we extend the Chipotle effect beyond eating habits, the grab-and-go ethos becomes ritualized and normalized. For an entire generation, constant movement and diluted relationships becomes our modus operandi.

These observations stem from a single college town. Having visited only a handful of other towns home to large concentrations of young people, I can only hazard to guess at their transferability. But those of you in college towns, in particular, should take note of these developments. For they represent physical embodiments of prevailing discourses in higher education exalting student mobility, flexibility, and self-investment.  At risk of overextending my argument, we in college towns sit at the confluence of various currents shaping a new type of person, one who is always grabbing and going at the whim of their individual desires. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Craft Craze

All waiting rooms in car repair shops are the same. Outdated sports magazines. Coffee maker with Styrofoam cups. Strange rubber odor. And a television tuned-in to some news channel. My recent trip to a local car repair shop did not disappoint, featuring all requisite elements of the full oil change and tire rotation experience. As I sat, disinterestedly flipping through the pages of a Sports Illustrated circa 2009, I overheard a television segment on the performance of Restoration Hardware in its initial public offering.

The segment included an interview with the CEO of Restoration Hardware, Carlos Alberini, who attributed the success of the company to shifting “up-market”. Whereas competitors responded to the economic recession by slashing prices, Restoration went the other direction, focusing its marketing on expensive furniture consistent with its stylistic mission of providing “authentic” American home goods.

Having walked through Restoration on several occasions and glanced at the price tags hanging from lamps, distressed dressers, and ancient maps, it is hard to imagine there being a huge market for such luxury items. Yet I was reminded on a recent weekend trip that there is demand for products that reflect material authenticity and local craftsmanship—even if they are simply replicas or are made to look “crafted”. The base for this market has widened beyond antiquers, collectors, and snobs. And I believe it will continue to grow as our generation increasingly distances itself from the knowledge needed to actually construct what retailers like Restoration produce en masse.

The Craft Getaway

My wife and I packed our bags a few weeks back for a weekend retreat to Charlottesville, Virginia. We mainly wanted a change of scenery and a chance to soak in the fall colors before they fell to the ground, but we also planned to stop at a few breweries and wineries. Our first stop was for lunch with friends at Blue Mountain Brewery, which was packed from wall to wall with diners and drinkers. Founded in 2007, Blue Mountain has followed in the footsteps of several successful microbrewing operations in the region, structuring their business model around sustainability, local community engagement, and treating beer making like an art form. My friend explained that the original restaurant connected to the brewery was originally quite modest in dimensions. The popularity of the place precipitated a large expansion, which looked to be paying for itself without any issue. On the day we visited, business was booming.

Crowds did not diminish as we ventured out the vineyards. We were greeted at each wine tasting room with large groups of smartly dressed people, all of whom seemed to be visitors to the area. My experience in Charlottesville is but a real-life example of what Restoration and other businesses like it know to be true. There is a consumer craze for all things “craft”, from home furnishings to alcoholic beverages. Since I found myself square in the middle of this craze, I looked inward for possible explanations.

For me, connecting with authentically crafted things is an expression of appreciation. I buy what I cannot create myself but desperately wish that I could. It is true that these things tend to be high quality, well constructed, and tasteful. This makes it easy to justify spending more on them than your run-of-the-mill bookcases and merlots. But the consumer craze for craft fills deeper needs.

We, Knowledge Workers

The reality is that my generation was born into society that does not really manufacture things as it once did. We are outcomes and drivers of the knowledge society, where the primary source of income and economic growth is not what you make, but rather what you know. We are the generation that aspires to be consultants or entrepreneurs in some sense or another. Working comfortably in the realm of ideas, we are highly skilled laborers—on our laptops.

Even as we celebrate our smart phones and relish in our post-secondary education, we inevitably confront the fact that our knowledge is astonishingly specialized and can rarely be applied to creating or fixing real things. We have to find others to fix our cars or remodel our kitchens. Many of these people exist on the margins of the knowledge society, yet remain vital to its functioning. This is not to say that no one in my generation creates anything material, or has zero knowledge applicable to real-world problems. But speaking in generalities, we are beyond a doubt a generation out of touch with tangible things.

The Choice

So we face a choice. We can learn a craft, either as a hobby or as a source of livelihood (if we are willing to assume the risk that accompanies it). Or we can show our appreciation of the authenticity and artistry that goes into making handcrafted goods by whipping out our credit cards. Most of us seem to make the latter choice. The reality is that, unless we can make our craft into a successful business venture like Blue Mountain Brewery, there is a higher value placed on knowing how to edit a website than how to make cabinets. While many of us like to think we are capable of going against the grain and denying economic incentives, we are likely to respond to the version of the good life we inherited.

Our quest for all things crafted will not likely diminish in the coming years. That is, of course, unless we rethink our priorities and recalculate the value assigned to certain skills and ways of knowing. I like to hope that in the future my interaction with craft will not be constrained to items on the shelves of Restoration Hardware. I like to think of a version of myself who can actually make and fix things, instead of a person who merely appreciates these abilities from the sidelines. The out-the-door lines of people in the local wineries and microbreweries of Charlottesville suggest that there may be others out there who feel the same way.