Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Digitization of the Virtual World: From Music to Higher Education

Welcome back to the Gauntlet of Balthazar for a slight exploration of the rabbit hole.

Red pilled or not, often an over-reaching arc within a series of events can be discerned, not only in the story-line for a script, film, or novel - as the Gauntlet often points out in the "From the Writer's Studio" feature here, but rather, it can be discerned within the knowing or unwitting socio-political intentions of the "powers that be" in the real world. As disclaimer I should add right here that while I generally urge restraint as far as deep conspiracy theories go, sometimes ruminations upon likely potentialities and trends should at the very least be taken under serious consideration.

Saying that, in this post I'd like to connect a few of the dots that have dawned on me over the last few years and may have escaped your vision of the future. But to do that I'd first like to take a stroll down memory lane for some perspective. So, let's time-travel, shall we?


Many, many years ago, in the mid-late 1980's (Oh no, I'm dating myself!), I seem to recall the sudden appearance of the first ATM's (automatic teller machines) popping up in the strangest of places in the cities of upstate New York (I was in college), and pretty much wherever there was a sizable enough population that was close enough to a bank chain of note to merit such a device.

Likewise you may remember thereabouts the introduction of the Compact Disc, circa 1987. At the time no one really purchased them, but by 1989 I distinctly recall friends of mine showing them to me. As I didn't own a CD player at the time they seemed like an odd curiosity at best. Little did I suspect.

Anyway, both the ATM and the CD took a few years to become endemic in first world nations (and then the rest of the world), but nonetheless, by 1990-1992, Vinyl LPs and Cassettes had become the minority product format in hundreds of thousands of record stores across the globe, which by the way were usually within walking distance of a bank with an ATM that stood ready to dole out cash for everyone's hungry wallets.

Cellular flip phones and non-arcade video gaming modules also appeared, and became entrenched in the home in the same period but are irrelevant to the dots I will later connect, so let's move on, okay?

I must confess that in the early 1990's I couldn't have foreseen the bleak future the music industry would one day suffer, but I did suspect that every purchase of any kind that I made at that time, and was not made in cash, was being collated into a number of inter-related data pools. I knew that I was a maybe not so willing participant in aiding in the formulation of marketing databases - not only elaborations of my own profile, but as part of a larger economic picture that was starting to take root. Though advertising (yes, advertising) companies like Google were still in their infancy and had to compete with browser and software search engines as well as now extinct brands such as Excite, Look Smart, etc., etc., my and your data was being steadfastly amassed and shared with retailers and, as it emerged, social media platforms like Facebook, etc. Our profiles were the stuff algorithms are made of, and algorithms were the home our profiles eagerly looked to as convenience overtook our diligence as consumers and our paltry concerns over the security and privacy of our data.

This was after all, as the French say, a fait accompli, even before the turn of the millennium, and in regard to the music industry, it was a ticking time bomb for the traditional distribution paradigm. In retrospect  the little death of music on the alter of larger margins and cut costs suggests a nice parallel to the fates of those now almost forgotten competitors to the dominant tech companies we are familiar with today. Hey, if you don't believe me, just Ask Jeeves about it!

Soon songs would be at best purchased in download form, and more frequently, subscription streamed on aggregator app services such as Pandora, Spotify, Sirius, etc., if they were paid for at all. With Google dominant across the board, they didn't even need their peripheral services such as Google Play Music and Google Plus, and let them go the way of the dinosaur, 'cuz, hey face it, it's better to run the entire show rather than to try to perform in all three rings at the same time. Obviously.

I mention this back-story not just as a history lesson about analogue to digital innovation, or to simply tell a tale of woe about the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who were pushed out of their employment at record labels, distributors, and entertainment retailers, but rather to illustrate where I believe this same phenomena, or tactic, is starting to be seriously applied in other unlikely spheres, such as higher education.


I remember just a few years ago I was chatting with an accountant friend of mine who was a strong proponent of technology in education. I believe that his operating premise began and ended with the notion that his daughter's back-pack was just too damn heavy! Thus, wouldn't it be great if she could just replace all of those textbooks and binders with lighter weight electronic devices.

If I recall, I explained to him that one of the premises of the Green end of the tech industry had always been that as computers became more and more entrenched, less paper will be used, therefore saving trees. As you can imagine, the virtue signaling snowflakes embraced this notion eagerly and touted how they were doing their part in saving the world just by operating a desktop PC at the office. However, regardless of the seeming soundness of that premise, it never turned out that way, and with the entrenchment of the PC (and other devices) to the office environment, paper usage increased by upwards of 90%.

However, much like ATM card use, the use of PC's at the office, as well as your daughter being issued a Chromebook went very quickly from being an experiment, to a convenience, to being a mandatory part of being a student or employee.


Through the later 1990's and first two decades of the twenty-first century, a number of online supplemental education providers, such as Coursera, became avenues wherein individuals could acquire information on a given subject to better their work situation, or just improve upon their brick-and-mortar school experience. I mean, you could even get a quicky ordination online and appear as a "legal" clergy person, but really, does anyone take an online priest seriously as compared with someone who actually attended seminary for years? Nonetheless, colleges too, joined the fray and offered courses online, and in a few cases, some schools only existed as online presences.

Within reason, the rule of thumb still insisted, and continues to insist, that attending an actual university, or graduate program at a university, trumped having a degree issued from "Myinternetuniversity dot com". I can't even imagine what a prospective student in say, Japan, would make of this in a nation where competition to be accepted to one of the handful of prestigious universities country-wide is perceived of as a life or death matter.

Much like the forces doing well within the music industry prior to endemic digitization, the upper tier schools would have little to do with such trifling alternatives, and more so, raised  their tuition even higher - proving that their degrees were worth the cash kids were going to fork over and land themselves into sharecropper debt for the next 20-30 years of their adult lives.

Mind you, in America, and I assume elsewhere, school loans are the only sort of debt one can accumulate which can not be erased, even by bankruptcy - So sayeth the collusion of banks and governments with the various university and college systems.

Today in many urban areas university campuses now dominate whole neighborhoods, and often the university itself ends up becoming a landlord of the surrounding buildings. If they have a tenant, great - they can charge rent and prosper all the more, and if the building is vacant - then they can use it for whatever academic purpose they see fit (and still probably write it off their taxes). It's a lucrative win-win for them either way.


As an upshot of the emergence of the Covid-19 Virus over the past few months I've spent a good amount of time watching and aiding my children as they tackle their schoolwork at home on Google-driven devices powered by Google created apps, and the thought has occurred...what if the global Corona "shelter in place" house arrest program is just window dressing for an ulterior motive whose long game is designed for the far future.

Could this all be a ploy to make us all more comfortable (well, even more comfortable) with children "attending" school from home? Now, obviously, the youngest children need to be out of the house so that most adults will actually have the time to go to work in order to keep their family fed and the larger economy going, but what about high school and college-aged students? Could they not always do their work online? Think of it, no large buildings to keep clean, no supplies that need to be ordered, no security, and the staff in general - well just think of how much it could shrink.

Then again, perhaps this will never be the case for high school, and virtual schools will persist for the 3-18 demographic forever, but what if we are being slowly conditioned to accept the notion that a degree from say, Harvard - online, is as valid as one obtained from attending the university.


Imagine what it must be like for a bean-counter in the bursars office of Harvard University. "Sure", he or she says to his or herself, "We get endowments, grants, government money, tuition and endless student loan payments, but these pesky costs are cutting into our net profit. What ever shall we do? Hey, I know...what if we can ramp up our online education and cut down on some physical costs? What do you think?"

"What?", says the Dean. "We are Harvard. Not some fly-by-night internet school based in Montana. Hurumph!"

"Yes, but what if we rent out some of the buildings on the edge of the campus, and make them into luxury condos? It would make millions." Proposes the Bursar.

"Well, maybe that." The Dean concedes.

"You know, one of the study halls has been vacant for years. What if we made it a museum or performance space, with, you know, something like a Starbucks in it? That would be so hip, you know, for the kids." Says the bean-counter.

"Fair enough. You know if I think about it, if we charge the same for a degree online as we do for attending the school, we would make even more money, and not have to maintain those old buildings for housing and dining halls. The students can just make their own meals and sleep at home."

"That's exactly what I was thinking." Says the Bursar.

"We would have to do this really slowly of course. Like over many years."

"I think it's inevitable. So we might as well embrace it." The Bursar adds.

"Yes, it probably is." The Dean admits.

Obviously, this is not an actual conversation, but rather an extrapolation of a mindset. But don't say that I didn't warn you when Harvard yard is dotted with theaters, museums, day care centers, coffee shops, and upscale housing for young professionals, and job interviewers coo "Awesome resume, and, wow, you even got a degree from Harvard online. We'll set you right up with that corner office asap. Welcome aboard.

Till next time.   

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