“I kid Justin about calling me the guest pessimist. He had me visit because I’ve talked a bit about the course’s theme for the day: dystopian futures of online education.
The students made some pretty amazing multimedia interpretations of their version of education dystopias. A few stopped me in my tracks.
As I shared with the student-learners, one person’s dystopia is another person’s utopia. The trick is that often both are happening at the same time. One student’s short film imagined a future where “second half” college is slang for the millions of college students who complete half their educational lives in prison. I shuddered because I know the school-to-prison pipeline makes that a very real present for thousands of students.
Justin made the point that his dystopian future is one where its utopia for the few and and hell for the rest. As one student put it, the only thing worse than the dystopia s/he imagines is the present state of public education.
““I couldn’t do it anymore. I’ve made too much money to claim to have a conscience, but that’s the closest thing to it. Can you turn that off?” They both stared for a moment at her phone on the table between them . After she’d switched off the mic and dropped the phone back into her bag, he spoke quickly. She didn’t have to ask him many questions to keep him talking. The gist of his intelligence was this: ONE had hired the bankers to develop sophisticated algorithms that could mine huge amounts of data and deliver precise predictions about consumer behavior.
“So what?” Kera said. “Don’t all smart companies do that, or at least try to? I search for something online, the search engine uses all of my recent web activity to get me the best results. I buy music or a book, the retailer tells me what other titles I’d like. How is what you’re talking about different from that?”
“Those are very two-dimensional examples. What ONE is actually able to do is more like this: ONE gathers up a record of all the entertainment you consume, and the entertainment your friends consume, and how close you are to each of those friends. Most of that stuff is trivial, of course, and consumers are just giving it away anyway. But ONE also is gathering up data on the jobs you’ve held, and your educational background, and your medical history, and the medical history of your relatives, and your driving record, and most of your financial transactions, and a thousand other factors you’d never even think about.”
“But how could ONE get all of that?”
“You mean, how is the data collected?” He shook his head. “I knew better than to ask that.”
“You think they’re getting it illegally?”
“Would there be a legal way?”
“I hope not. But then why? ONE is a media company. Why do they even want data like that, especially if they have to break laws to get it?”
“They’re not just a media company. Not anymore. Their ultimate objective— the arrogance of it— is staggering. It would have been laughable to me before I got to ONE, especially coming from the Street, where I thought arrogance had been perfected. But I’ve seen these models work, and—”
He hesitated, and she sensed he was holding something back.
“With data on this scale, yes, they can tell you what book you might want to read next. But they can also tell an insurance company your likely medical future, including the age and cause of your death. Or they could tell an employer whether you are the best candidate for a job you’ve applied to. Or supply a university’s admissions committee with a report that details not just whether you’re a qualified candidate, but what you’re likely to do with the degree they give you, and how much you’ll be making ten years from now.”
“It’s hard to believe it could be that precisely predictive.”
“And this data is for sale?”
He nodded. She saw his eyes scan to the door.”