Fearing the future

If like me you enjoy science fiction or drama based in the future, you will of course be well used to the assumption that it’s all going to be terrible. The future is dystopian, flesh-eating zombies are everywhere, authoritarian régimes play with people’s lives, machines have perfected AI and have become totally malevolent, the UK leaves the EU. Trust me, if this is it you really don’t want to experience anything much beyond tomorrow lunchtime.

It’s all good fun of course, and none of those things may actually happen. And yet our futurology tells us much about who we are right now, and what we fear. Orwell’s 1984 was not really prediction or even a warning: it was an assessment of the world from the perspective of 1948.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many people were enthralled by visions of the future presented by the cartoonist Arthur Radebaugh, who in a series of images presented his idea of a world of the future which, interestingly, was quite prescient. A good few of his predictions have come true or may come true before long. Other would-be prophets may not always have been quite so good at telling the future. But the interesting thing is that most of the predictions, good or bad, have always been about how far technology will advance.

And in the universities, are we ready for the future, or do we fear it? The website fastcompany.com recently made what it described as ‘5 bold predictions for the future of higher education’. The common element in these predictions is the idea that we will continue to develop what we are developing now, but at a faster pace. Not one of these predictions is particularly ‘bold’.

So for those of us working on strategies for a future we don’t yet know for sure, what approach should we take? Should we apply a popular futurology approach and assume it’s going to be a dystopia for higher education, as much as for everyone else? Or should we just assume that it’s all going to be super-charged educational technology? Or is something more interesting than all that waiting for us? And how can we tell?

Of course education will adopt new technology, but that isn’t really the point of interest. The fascination a couple of years ago with MOOCs demonstrated a poverty of understanding of education. Education can be enhanced by method, but it isn’t about method. Rather it is about our understanding of knowledge, its uses and its values. This is the debate about the future that we need to have. Whether  the professor in a 2030 classroom is a robot hovering on a magnetic disc may be a fun topic of conversation but is totally irrelevant to the debate.

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5 Comments on “Fearing the future”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Arthur Radebaugh, is an interesting example, one of my favorite though is French illustrator, etcher, lithographer, caricaturist, and novelist Albert Robida (1848 –1926), author, among others, of a book called The Twentieth Century, to view some of his futuristic predictions see https://tinyurl.com/ydfck9jf

    However, when I discuss Robida with my students I also point out the obvious problem with futurology, i.e. why does the road ahead keep leading us back to a place that reproduces the exact same gender/race/class stereotypes which we were supposed to leave behind? The future belong to the people who imagine it, and if such people are often similar to each other we miss out on what a more *diverse* foresight could offer..

    As the author of the Atlantic piece “Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?” puts it: “In the 1970s, Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock argued that there are three types of futurism the world needed: a science of futurism that could talk about the probability of things happening, an art of futurism that could explore what is possible, and a politics of futurism that could investigate what is preferable. Futurism has done well to develop the first side, building devices and technologies and frameworks through which to see technical advances. But …it’s fallen down a bit on the other two.” https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/07/futurism-sexism-men/400097/

    This is also true for education, which is more than, as the post argues, a question of technological innovation alone, rather one that keeps into account the social and ethical dimensions of the process, not forgetting that who does the imaging matter as much as what is imagined!


    • Yes, an interesting analysis. I knew about Robida but had forgotten!

      And yes, futurology is too often just a projection into the future of our assumptions and thoughts and prejudices. I definitely like the idea of futurism as art and politics.

  2. Vince Says:

    You don’t think then the universities brought the MOOC’s out onto the slopes of Mount Parnassus, there pinned them to the living rock so they couldn’t be accused them of killing them off.


    • MOOCs will continue, and rightly so, but they are not the future of HE overall as was rather naively suggested a few years ago. We just need to keep this sort of thing in perspective.

      • Vince Says:

        I never really thought they were the whole future. But I did think the universities would confer credit for completing courses in a formal way that could be used inside the walls as it were.
        Where I thought they could be very useful was in areas of profound deprivation be it Africa Asia or areas in the West that are equally deprived of good education.


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