Pistols at dawn: Om challenges Zuck – and looks ahead

Image representing Om Malik as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

In a strong and curious post, Om Malik takes Mark Zuckerberg to task for his FWD.us push for immigration reform – while many of the titans of Silicon Valley have gaily signed on. The Zuck manifesto is here: http://www.fwd.us/immigration_reform.

It’s hard to argue with the initiative itself, and that is not quite what Om is doing. He’s raising the questions that in polite tech society one is not supposed to raise, about the fate of flyover country in post-industrial decline, and the naked power of those who control the new economy. How’s this for a contrarian claim: “Sorry Mark, but in the age of data, Facebook is Standard Oil and you are Rockefeller. ”  And as Om notes, there are plenty who work for these new knowledge companies who do not get invited to the parties and given free iPhones. What about them?

It’s a plea for comprehensive engagement in the social-political implications of the knowledge revolution. But, of course, as we have noted, that is not how Washington works, where comprehensive and integrative and long-term get no votes. To the extent that the Valley’s efforts to win attention in Washington have had success, they have fit neatly into its approach (with the single, glaring exception of the SOPA revolt; and even that was a fit since Washington knows about take-downs, novel though the methods involved were). Whether the disruptive emerging industries will be prepared to engage with the policy community to address the vast impacts of their disruption poses an interesting question, at a time when neither one nor the other seems interested. If Om Malik is interested, we should all be.

Oh yes, here’s my take on the Washington/Valley divide.



Why I have issues with Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us — Tech News and Analysis.

The MOOC Scoop: Innovation and the Naive

MOOCs, Innovation, and the Naïve

A thoughtful piece by Clayton Christenson and Michael Horn was challenged this morning on Twitter by John Hagel @jhagel: “Sorry, Clay, we’re thinking much too narrowly abt MOOCs as disruptive force – is it really just-in-time mini-courses?” That may not be a fair way to characterize their position (see the link below). But it surely notes the wide-scale naivety of most of the movers in the MOOC game. This material is fissile. Read to blow in a global chain-reaction.

[My earlier discussion:https://futureofbiz.org/2012/12/20/yes-we-really-do-need-mooc-state-level-and-global/ ]

Memorial Hall de Harvard


It has long been clear that online education would become transformative. It has just taken longer than anyone might reasonably have expected. There are many reasons, ranging from broadband speeds to the clannishness of the academy and its accreditation systems to the rather simple fact that thinking analogically (out of the box, for those who prefer to speak in cliches) is hard. Smart people find it especially challenging. Their smartness equips them quite brilliantly to avoid the need for it. You will see this principle in action (it needs a name) everywhere from the Fortune 500 C Suites where no-one needs to take social media seriously (or, for that matter, women execs) to Washington, DC, where most of the time some of the shrewdest of men (and some women) are looking in their rear-view mirror.

Back to MOOCs. There has been “distance education” for over 100 years (begun back in the heyday of the USPS), and even now mainstream higher ed sees that as the template for what the internet can deliver. Along the way there have been wondrous and complex efforts to duplicate the environment of the classroom online – complete with cameras in a real room and all the accoutrements of a campus at a distance. 

Finally, the efforts of one or two major schools and a handful of renegade faculty have led to the offering of “massive” courses (yes, gaming is the model here along with the silly lingo) and the daring principle of “open” access (pioneered in the UK by the Open University, but anathema to the due-process calculus of American schools and their peer accreditors). A famous early experiment, when using rather primitive email-based methods an academic offered a course (was it in Byzantine history?) and recruited hundreds of applicants, led nowhere. Suddenly, catchup.


And as elite schools play around by offering a course here and there, and entrepreneurs join them – in search, as is proper in even the digital world, of a business model – we now confront a move by a whole tranche of midlevel colleges to use the MOOC technology to offer sampler courses in their traditional programs.  I could not avoid the broadest of smiles as I read the report. They seem genuinely to believe that an add-on course or two will help with recruitment. They seem to have absolutely no idea that they are playing not so much with fire as with a nuclear chain reaction. However exactly this comes about (I offer some suggestions below), the MOOC is set to devastate western higher education as we know it. Even in the UK a similar grassroots effort is now underway, with the British Library as a partner.

Here are some trajectories that, jointly or severally, are set to lay waste what for generations has been “higher education” in the United States and elsewhere.

·        I have argued elsewhere that the United States itself (perhaps through USAID) or one or more of our major foundations should very rapidly develop a global MOOC-based university offering full undergraduate and graduate degrees. My view is that such an initiative would offer the west a major strategic advantage vis-à-vis other contenders for global influence, and could initially take advantage of widespread knowledge of English (and, then, French, Spanish, Portuguese) in the developing world (Africa in particular). If this is done, there will immediately be blowback since the nature of the MOOC is that there is essentially no marginal cost for one more student, and the offering is accessible internet-wide. That is to say, these offerings would sweep the United States also.

·        A second salient into the future may emerge from initiatives taken by individual states or chambers of commerce or other entities with credibility and resources intent on improving the quality and flow of college-educated students and aware of the increasingly prohibitive cost, to states and individuals, of the standard approach. Let’s say state A takes an initiative and plows money into it while closing state university campuses to pay the bill. Again, the project will not be containable within the state. The key would be a first mover with the credibility to challenge the supremacy of the peer-accreditation system. I am actually a fan of that system (versus the European statist option), but it has institutionalized establishment control. We may expect other players to join the regional accreditors in standard-setting. Since the cost to the user will be zero, the control that accreditors have exercised through federal recognition of their decisions for student aid purposes will become moot.

The point is clear. Once a degree-granting MOOC is up and running, its impact will be viral, across the length and breadth of the internet. It will very rapidly destroy the economic model that sustains our current higher education system. Those colleges presently toying with offering sample courses in this subject and that had better look to their laurels. Many of them will not be around in 10 years’ time, and some I suspect in five. Some turkeys now veritably preparing for Christmas, while others believe it will never come.

I am not saying that this is all going to be to the good. But some facts seem clear and it helps us not at all to pretend otherwise:

  • MOOC economics – no marginal student cost – will lead to huge global institutions as well as niche efforts with base funding from foundations, governments, religious institutions, business leaders, in a vast free-for-all.
  • New, global accreditation mechanisms, probably competing with one another, will emerge.
  • There will be carnage among the current midstream state and private institutions without the branding and/or endowment to buck the supply and demand curves.
  • Huge new opportunities will be opened worldwide to hundreds of millions who currently are excluded; a dramatic driver of global innovation and development.
  • The plain initial focus on tech subjects and others readily susceptible of AI teaching and grading will give place to a wider curriculum as AIs rapidly improve their capacities.
  • The human/social dimension of these enterprises will mesh with exponential developments in social media.

Beyond the Buzz, Where Are MOOCs Really Going? | Wired Opinion | Wired.com.

Yes, we really do need MOOCs – state-level and global

When the venerable Economist magazine decides to take up a theme, you know it has arrived. Now MOOCs.

I shall come back to this, again and again. But for now, three things we need to note.

1. MOOC-based disruption is coming, whether we (or should I say the higher ed establishment, for-profit and mainstream) like it for not. By and large, “we” do not, and we have made that plain by covering our heads with a blanket hoping it will go away. My estimate: within 10 years, 50% disruption of higher ed in the west. Akin to the impact of digital disruption on publishing in the past ten years.

2. The curious way in which initial efforts have been rolling out – from Stanford and MIT, for example, directly and indirectly – is an important talking point. Institutions with little fear of oblivion dare to experiment, if slowly. Institutions facing the firing squad – like the mid-level state universities and generic liberal arts colleges – are busy focusing on faculty meetings and tenure and the chatter of a world about to be hit by a stray asteroid.

3. Two terrific opportunities to be seized.

(a) Innovative states can immediately (as in, within 12 months) develop MOOC/Khan academy models to overlay and supplant the existing systems.

(b) The United States, through USAID or another agency, can develop a global (initially English-language) university offering full undergraduate programs free of charge and without prerequisites. The former has a chance of saving American education, and thereby the American future.  The latter of vastly extending our influence, especially and initially in Africa where English is widely accessible. But moves into a range of languages will soon be AI-based. This will finally be more significant for U.S. global influence in C21 than another dozen carrier groups. I do not exaggerate.

So, let’s get moving in 2013.

Free education: Learning new lessons | The Economist.

On 9/11, Asymmetry, Exponential Change, and Washington’s Culture Challenge

As 9/11 comes around again, 11 years on, it’s time to think about risk, asymmetry, and the long term. Because a key lesson of that dark day is a simple one: that advanced technologies and the global communications they have enabled have reset the game of security, once and for all.
Three key reflections as we grieve anew – and look ahead.
The core mission of C-PET, the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, is to advance, in Washington, DC, the long view – in which we ask “tomorrow’s questions” as the context for today’s decisions, at the interface of policy and technology. In parallel, my consulting practice Strategic Futures, LLC (akaFutureofBiz.org) asks “tomorrow’s questions” as the context for today’s decisions at the interface of business and technology. The corporate/government relationship, which we all agree is too mired in lobbying and short-term advantage should be stronger and visionary.
1. I wrote some time back that the past decade been dominated by two global experts on asymmetry, neither of whom worked for the U.S. government. Their names were Bin Laden, now dispatched, and Assange, now incarcerated in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy in a situation somewhere between scandal and farce. Point is simple – and I make no suggestion of moral equivalence between them. These two men intuitively grasped the capacity of strategically deployed small means and small numbers to shape global events. There have always been asymmetries of power – I fly tonight to London, where Karl Marx sat writing Das Kapital in the British Museum. But technology has changed the game. And the key issue for our security in Century 21 is how we play it when we no longer set the rules, and they keep being changed.
2. While destructive technologies are developing apace, and increasingly accessible to individuals – synthetic biology, which we have addressed in our Roundtable series in Washington, is one key example; and cybersecurity, another C-PET theme – the principle we need to keep in focus is that of exponential change. While change has always been at a gathering pace, it’s in our generation – powered by Moore’s Law but other factors too – that the impact of exponential has begun to have dramatic implications. We all know this, of course, as a fact. The degree to which it has been absorbed in Washington is another matter, of course.
3. To begin to grasp the implications of asymmetric shifts and the exponential pace of change, we need not simply to be far-sighted (that is, constantly working the long view, future scenarios, asking what tomorrow’s questions shall be); we need to be integrative, interdisciplinary, radical in our patterns and practices quite aside from our thinking. Our politics, in my own view, is in general the realm of good men and women incapable of rising above a “corporate culture” that sets their foreshortened agendas and is dooming us to decisions that take tomorrow for granted. The rumblings of what I have named “exopolitics” suggest a seismic change to come, one that is indeed cognizant of the asymmetric potential of social media and other aspects of our new communications technologies.
So on 9/11, a day that will always be somber to us, let’s take a fresh look at asymmetry and the impact of the exponential change that has given it such significance, for ill and for good; and let’s redouble our efforts to bring about a culture of government in synch with such dramatic shifts and attuned in Century 21 to the values that laid down the foundations of this nation, and the technologies that, in large measure, have resulted from its efforts.

5 Labor Day Questions for America

Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919)

Henry Ford (ca. 1919) (Wikipedia)

As we celebrate Labor Day in 2012, we confront the hardest questions about our future. The Industrial Revolution, for all its early horrors, offered vast employment opportunities and a higher standard of living for many millions of people. It enabled general education and powered democracy. It facilitated the consumer economy. The vast companies set up by the steel barons and Henry Ford and their like provided lifetime employment for hardworking men and women. The companies remain – but we know that’s all over.

These are my questions. To America, to its leaders, to its people. They aren’t partisan (the big issues no longer fit the partisan divide). They’re tomorrow’s questions. Unless we have answers, we can’t make today’s decisions.

And before we go any further: There is something terribly Narcissistic about “knowledge workers,” people like you and me, who hang on Twitter and blog and one way or another are shaping the future. We claim no superior status to those who labor hard with their hands. We may shape the conversation, but it is to our embarrassment if we do hot shape it to include them – just as the uber-rich are to be despised if they find their self-worth in their net worth. It is together, as fellow members of Homo sapiens, radically equal, women and men, in the equation of human worth, that we are called to tackle the greatest of questions of C21. Kindly join me.

1. How do we create jobs, when the result of our smartest innovative thinking has been to create machines to do jobs for us? (Level 1, this is a problem. Level 2, it’s the end of the world as we know it.) More about this: https://futureofbiz.org/2012/07/23/5-stories-that-make-me-worry-about-whether-the-future-has-jobs/

2. How do we foster innovative, risk-taking culture when health benefits remain tied mainly to jobs? (Listen up, both GOP and Dems; the contrast with Europe is remarkable; in the world’s other main market employment is essentially irrelevant for healthcare.)

3. How do we prepare our kids for an environment in which they will have multiple jobs several careers, but in which far more will depend on their initiative at every point? On their taking responsibility. On their “de-schooling” themselves. (Kids are more cossetted and green-housed than ever before; the worst possible preparation. And this question is not about schools.)

4. How do we re-engineer our public schools to lead the world again? The STEM mantra (science, tech, engineering, math) is exactly that. A mantra. Even if we revolutionize our public schools (ha!) it will take half a generation to make a difference. How do we build a techno-literate culture, at all levels?

5. And the fate of the essentially uneducated? Aside from the millions of poorly-educated and/or poorly-gifted kids, we have a massive underclass who are hard to employ now and are fast becoming impossible ever to employ. Is this the hardest question?

There are answers, in part and pro tem; but unless these are the questions there will never be sufficient focus on those answers to drive home the changes they require.

On the Death of the Man on the Moon

Flag of the United States on American astronau...

Neil Armstrong (Photo: Wikipedia)

An odd thing on a Saturday evening to discover on Twitter that the most interesting man in the world has died. And to recall that he had shared my birthday, August 5. There’s a curious boding in birthdays.

I had met him. Met him at an embassy in Washington, DC, where despite the fact he was guest of honor there seemed much more interest in the cocktails than in shaking his hand. So I shook it. And we talked. About the moon, about the occasion, and about C-PET. And our shared birthday.

A man as modest as Steve Jobs, that other defining figure of our technological age, was self-absorbed. A man whose anguish as 43 years were spent by this allegedly visionary nation in failing to build on what he had signally achieved was kept almost entirely quiet (the Obama administration’s space strategy emerging in 2010 finally drew him and his fellow astronauts into polite regret). The first earth-man to set foot on another body in space; who for all we know was the first sentient being ever to do that in the vast expanses of the cosmos. (And before you start poo-pooing and raving about extra-terrestrials, go think for more than 5 minutes about the Fermi Paradox.)

The comparison with Steve Jobs is illuminating in so many ways. I don’t know whether they ever met. It would have been a fascinating encounter. The visionary of the miniature in conversation with the epitome of the astronomic. Together, these two dead engineers define an era, itself the platform that lays claim to the future, a future in which the exponential explosion of digital technology has enabled us to leverage our human engineering capacities beyond all prediction – and which has engaged them to serve ends that history will surely see as equally cool and equally trivial.

It’s Peter Thiel, whom I greatly admire even though I don’t share all of his analysis, who quips that we wanted flying cars and got 140 characters. Had his target been Facebook, on whose board he sits, rather than Twitter, it would have been easier to cry Huzzah! But his point is fundamentally sound. When I was a kid (and, by the way, ran the astronomy club at my English boys’ school), the coolest of all kids wanted to be astronauts. Raise the question now and you are likely to get a yawn, or worse. Anyone who’s into engineering wants to work in the Solar System that for so long circled around Steve Jobs. Micro has displaced macro; the human imagination has become absorbed with digitally-enabled human interaction, so “the social network” seeks, allegedly altruistically though undeniably IPO-ly, to connect all 7 billion of us so we can share our kids’ (and kittens’) pics. This cosmic narcissism stands in so great contrast to the vision of cosmic Columbuses and Vasco de Gamas as to be hard to grasp by those who love children (and kittens) and yet stare at the night sky and lust after both knowledge and presence.

Andrew Keen’s brilliant and non-naive critique of naive digital culture, Digital Vertigo, has forcibly reminded us of the flawed genius of utilitarianism. If what truly matters is for us to be happy, if the summum bonum of Homo sapiens lies not in the beatific vision and the cultural mandate (and if, dear secular thinker, you don’t know what they mean, o boy, you should), or even a post-theistic re-statement of them both, but in a mirror and a merely social network, then who can challenge the Lotos-eaters or their chip-popping couch potato cognates, for whom the good life is merely the life at ease?

This same week, Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of The Murdoch, turned her family’s business debacle into an exercise in education – in her Edinburgh lecture which the establishment of my former nation regards as the year’s top occasion for media discourse. What is the point of profit, she asked? It needs to have a point. The transcendence milled into human nature, whether or not understood within the Judeo-Christian frame – which set the stage for science as well as democracy (yes, through the proud Enlightenment) – demands always something beyond itself. Else why for modest rewards and ambiguous esteem have so many of our countrymen and women lost limbs and lives in jungles and deserts and mountains far from our alabaster cities? Humans constantly grasp after reductionism, with happiness as its goal and no judgment as to means; at the same time as their striving for what lies beyond becomes frenetic.

And yet, three short years after Armstrong set his feet upon that other cosmic body, we lost interest. Budgets, priorities. And we had knocked the Soviets into a cocked hat. And space costs moolah and does not win elections.

This modest engineer became a Right Stuff pilot and the first walker on another world. 43 long years later we are ambling back into the game. There’s time to make up. Perhaps, with SpaceX and others, we can.

It’s hard to see what sense America makes without a sustained engagement in the future. JFK’s moon commitment and its follow-through across a decade of leaders offer a benchmark of national capability and trans-party vision.

And that takes us back, of course, to the 19th century, where most of what needs to be said was said. And Tennyson’s Ulysses, penned in 1842, the closing lines:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
  We are not now that strength which in old days
  Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
  One equal temper of heroic hearts,
  Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Ulysses, aged now, sets out on another voyage. It was of course Tennyson who had written 10 years before of the Lotos-Eaters. There really are only two courses. In 1832, and 1842, he laid them bare.

Oh yes, and Tennyson was born on August 6. Close.

Farewell, man on the moon.


NASA and the Wrong Stuff:


On the Death of Steve Jobs:


Neil Armstrong, First Man on Moon, Dies at 82 – NYTimes.com.


I’m Voting for the Long View

USGS satellite image of Washington, D.C., modi...

USGS satellite image of Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seal of the United States Office of Science an...

Office of Science and Technology Policy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m in my favored place for writing, which isn’t even a coffee house (my second choice) but an airplane. Just enough room to type, zero distractions (United Airlines has yet to discover wifi), and as often happens stimulating company. This time, bumped into an old friend. He’s in the space sector, which after nearly half a century of hibernation has suddenly awakened. SpaceX Dragon. NASA’s Mars Curiosity. Suddenly after all that clunky Shuttle stuff (which was also vastly expensive), and the bakolite Space Station, America seems to be moving again.

There are big issues at stake in November, and we take sides. Some of us are highly partisan and fiercely loyal. Others are more nuanced – or more cynical. But through all the electioneering, a striking fact bridges the parties. Washington is too little interested in the one thing that is most in its interests, and ours: The Long View.

What’s even more striking, I confess, is how little engaged corporate America is in pressing The Long View on Washington. Of course, at one level, public corporations operate year-to-year and quarter-by-quarter. But successful corporate leaders are smart at aligning short-term market accountability with long-term growth.  How is it that these smarts don’t survive crossing the Beltway?

Before you say I am making this up, here are some recent conversations I have had. Not naming names, though if you doubt me I will supply them in confidence.

  • I chatted with the CEO of one of the largest tech corporations. Why don’t you guys press for the Long View in DC, I asked? “I really hadn’t thought about it quite like that,” he said. He then introduced me to his top lobbyist in DC.
  • “Why did he send you to see me?” asked the lobbyist. “That’s not what I’m paid to do. We work with the electoral cycle.”
  • Then, meeting with the CTO of another tech giant and several of his execs, I put it this way: “You have a strategy unit in your Chairman’s office with a 10-year time horizon. You have R and D people all over the world thinking 7-8 years ahead. Why do you tell your Government Relations guys the horizon is 18 months? Why don’t you align these units in your own company?” ( His lobbyist was in the room and said didn’t disagree with me.)
  • Then, in a roomful of lobbyists tearing out their hair as the federal budget’s haircutting undermined their efforts (and in some cases I suspect their bonuses), I stated: “There are other groups who can guarantee long-term a vote in the House, whoever wins the election, such as the major pro-Israel lobby, and the NRA, and National Right to Life.” I wasn’t being tactful. “Why haven’t you taken The Long View and worked district by district like they have to get Washington to take it? You have far more money.” Silence.
  • Then, chatting at length with a former senior exec of another of the biggest tech companies, I make the same point. “Oh we had big disagreements about that. There are now four people assigned to think long-term about policy; with everyone else it’s 18 months. Only one of the four is in Washington.”

I’m not here to challenge the wisdom of the Founders in setting a two-yearly cycle for the House, or the ultra-short-termism of the market. But both of these seem to me crazy ways to do business in a Moore’s-Law-driven world. As I go around saying to business leaders and any pols who will listen, the faster change is taking place the more vital it is to scope the future. It’s counter-intuitive, because the faster things change the more difficult it is. But it’s a core principle of good decision-making. You can’t make today’s choices without Asking Tomorrow’s Questions. The further you go from “political” Washington, the more people get the point. They get it in the strategy and R and D units of these self-same corporations who insist that their hugely-influential representatives in Washington focus simply on the short term. They get it in the less political reaches of the federal government. Few years back I was privileged to be a non-federal participant in Project Horizon, a large-scale strategic planning project led by the Department of State with other agencies – looking 20 years ahead.

But it’s “political” Washington, the democratic driver of every big decision, that is locked into a suicide pact with the “political” levers of corporate America. How could anyone make this stuff up?

I once sat in the office of one of our top VCs out in Silicon Valley to ask for his help in turning all this around. Before politely showing me the door, he said a number of things I shall not easily forget. One was this (it’s close to the exact wording): “When I look out of my window, I see China. We regard Washington as a European city. Why should we be interested?” I mildly offered two points in response. One was the argument I have just been making, that his investment time horizon was out of kilter with Washington’s policy horizon. Another was that every single day inter-governmental organizations (WIPO, WTO, ITU, ILO, G-whatever) have more influence over the outcomes of every dollar he was investing than they had the day before; and the only access point he would ever have to them would be through Washington.

Of course, there are many reasons why we have arrived at this situation. The old-time, regulated tech sector, driven by telecoms but with pharma and others in the vicinity, has a (generally proper) symbiotic relationship with the regulatory agencies and a forward position in ensuring that the legislative environment is favorable (note that I have avoided using the pejorative term rent-seeking . . .). Even moreso, the defense sector – on both the government and corporate sides – work closely on long-term procurement and R and D issues. As a result, these major slices of the tech economy are preoccupied with their own interests in Washington. And while they collaborate in trade groups and coalition settings, their chief DC interests are narrowly defined.

It’s worth noting several sectors for which this approach is especially inappropriate. One is energy. Another is space. Another is infrastructure, but old-style transportation emerging tech-related. Another is the group of industries with high environmental impact. And back of every sector lies the need for policies favorable to innovation. This is not an argument for the feds to get more into regulating or funding new technologies. It certainly is an argument for the long-term impacts of technology, the special needs and opportunities of its innovators and manufacturers, the values concerns that ultimately shape markets and thereby drive value – for these and other considerations to rise up the policy agenda. And if you are seeking metrics: Would it not be interesting if the House Science, Space and Technology Committee were the one on which every top legislator aspired to serve. If the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) had the clout of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). If every policy choice in the legislative and executive branches were rigorously assessed in light of its impacts over 10 years and its integration with anticipated developments in science and technology. For example.

So, how about it, America? I want to vote for The Long View.

Mr. Zuckerberg comes to Washington


So after Facebook boosts its DC representation, a new alliance is announced with Google, Amazon, and others to defend a “free internet” and such.

If this is not going to be seen as just another lobby ploy by rent-seeing corporates, they need to add non-profits to the group as full members, and spell out a very clear program with which others than digital corporate interests will be in agreement.

And while we are at it, they need to realize that their own corporate futures depend increasingly on their engagement with users/customers through social media. As we have kept noting –  and as Facebook’s almost unbelievable history of gaffes keeps demonstrating – the kings of social are among its least agile proficient, and strategic users.

Get these two issues resolved and both the future of the digital giants and that of America could look a lot better.

Facebook, Google, Amazon, EBay Form Internet Lobbying Group – AllFacebook.

What Do Obama and Romney Know about Science? Really?

President Barack Obama addresses the House Dem...

President Barack Obama addresses the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Romney (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

Under a curiously misleading headline (“What do Obama and Romney know about science?”) the Scientific American informs us of a project in which they have linked up with a dozen science organizations to press the campaigns on a series of common questions.

Some quick remarks on first reading of the document:

1. While the questions are each and every one interesting, they are (sorry) entirely predictable. Read the list.

2. A very curious absentee: There is no question at all about the relation of science and human values/morals/ethics/what-you-will. This is even more significant than it may sound, as the “values” aspects to emerging technologies are racing right up there with Moore’s Law itself. (And: according to the annual VCU poll of science attitudes, around one-half of Americans believe S and T have caused as many problems as they have solved.)

3. Another core absentee: AI, robotics, and the future of employment. At a recent lunch in Menlo Park, the only thing my two well-connected colleagues wished to discuss was when we were going to come up with innovations that actually create rather than destroy jobs. Humanoids are us, or almost. Huge policy issues await.

4. Convergence and innovation. Some of us are eager to get rid of tenure as a key pre-req to loosening up the S and T academic establishment (cause havoc in universities, of course; but havoc is a key currency of innovation). Why do we have NSF/NIH(which gets most of the moolah)/NIST/FDA/NASA and all the rest as-is, when the disciplines make less and less sense? The National Nanotechnology Initiative was a big effort to surmount this problem, and while it has led to good things it sure has had no impact on the problem itself. Anyone for a new federal tech R and D agency based in the Valley? No, not the Potomac Valley.

5. More than their personal science knowledge, which I would love to do is get Mr. O and Mr. R on the hot seat to ask them what exponential means.

If I were putting such a list of what I have called Tomorrow’s Questions together, I would not ask a bunch of societies but really smart people with widely differing views . . . from enviros to transhumanists to Catholics to feminists to mommy bloggers to the key tech journos, and so on.

Enough for now! This is a great discussion to have opened, and I’m sure Christine Gorman @cgorman will keep it open.

The statement maintains a wish expressed 4 years ago for both candidates to have a debate on science alone. I suspect quilting or health food would be more appealing; some things just ain’t going to happen. In 2008 The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies hosted a full-day event at the National Press Club with co-sponsorship from a major science society and a local university – with high-level panels on space policy, bio, nano, and so on. The idea was that the campaigns would send top surrogates for a serious day of engagement.

As it happened, astrology intervened with science and our stars were not aligned. It was the week the McCain campaign canceled itself. But Michael Nelson arrived on behalf of the Obama campaign, and not only engaged at length with the panels but subsequently joined both the board and the Senior Fellowship of C-PET.

This year we don’t plan to host a similar event, but to go broader and wider. Just announced: a series of teleconference town halls with leading science, tech, biz, policy figures, and campaign surrogates as and when they wish to join, to continue the roundtable and telecon series we have hosted over the past 4 years.

I moderated the panel on the election and the future of U.S. competitiveness at the Napa Tech Policy Summit which C-PET co-sponsored a few weeks ago. It included gurus Paul Kedrosky and Vivek Wadhwa, as well as Kathy Warner COO of Start-up America and Emanuel Pleitez of Spokeo.

Here’s what they had to say (video below). They don’t think the election will make that much difference. (Wait for the last question.)


The C-PET 2008 Election Forum at the National Press Club


What Do Obama and Romney Know about Science? And Why It Matters | Observations, Scientific American Blog Network.

The University of the United States: Please can we get on with it?

education online

education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Another smart piece from the ubersmart @cathyndavidson on the future of higher ed has me mulling yet again . . .. She has a way of generating mull.

It’s perhaps been no surprise that “distance education” (in its many modalities) has lingered outside the mainstream for a score of years longer than one might have expected. There are, of course, reasons. Substantively, a deep unease that the secret sauce of higher ed is related to campuses and classrooms and realtime connectedness between professors and students. OK, large state universities do not exactly fit that norm, but we shall leave it for now. The presence of tacky, usually for-profit, operators with (on a good day) marginal accreditation. The commitment of our better educators to the avoidance of, essentially, school by scantron.

But the real barriers have been formal. Higher education is the most conservatively-organized enterprise on the planet. Back in the day when I worked in one of its outposts (early 90s), I watched a multi-year reform process designed by one of the nation’s leading educators encompass at least two PhDs and four vast volumes of materials, and achieve, exactly, zero. My observation: the system was designed to resist nuclear attack, and we were watching the faculty clamber out of their bunkers, blinking but unbowed.

My view is that in the next 10-12 years higher education will undergo creative destruction on the scale that publishing has been experiencing of late and travel agencies (remember them?) a quinquennium earlier. The online/free experiments that somewhat self-consciously a cluster of major schools has initiated (and that seems to have been a cause of the wonderful free public entertainment afforded of late by the lunatic managers of UVa) are extraordinarily late in the day. But they are with us.

Back to point: Here is what we need. OK, I have said this before, but since you didn’t listen, world, let me say it again. And note the strategic context. It could hardly be bigger.

The major opportunity for the United States to influence global culture and secure lasting relationships in the flux of C21 lies precisely here: In the initiation of a United States open university offering full degree programs worldwide to all comers. We have perhaps an 8-10 years branding advantage against certain rival institutions, chiefly in China, who will otherwise take on this task with abandon. While much could have been achieved a decade ago, key factors from 2012 out are the explosive adoption of mobile, mobile’s shift even in developing nations to feature phones and smartphones, and very large improvements (even if not quite to the levels Ray Kurzweil keeps expecting) in the AIs that enable language interpretation and the increasingly post-clunky experience of distance teaching.

A dozen major issues are raised, but they can all be answered. What we need is for the school to open its doors. Within a decade effectively every one of planet earth’s denizens will have access to smartphone mobile connectedness. And that’s all we need.

Then let the chips fall. Yes, US-based students may join in. Yes, this will destroy large swathes of the higher-end global education infrastructure as we know it. And, oh yes, dumping tenure (one of my favored targets) will certainly help us get there from here (all we need, seems to me, is an appropriations rider in Congress).

But blending the vast educational nous of the UK’s visionary Open University with our latest tech delivery methods, the Department of Education‘s savvy, the global cultural outreach of USAID – together with our vital partnerships in UNESCO and the World Bank  . . . the question is not whether but how, and when.

Can We Replace Professors With Computer Screens? | Co.Exist: World changing ideas and innovation.