That Old Anonymous Web

People are jerks.

At least you might think that if you ever spent any time reading through the comments section of any online article that have a decent readership. People harass one another, start arguments by nitpicking silly iota, and inevitably, someone brings up a comparison to Hitler.

I used to think folks were so crummy to one another because of a sociological phenomenon wherein people act worse when they feel anonymous – as though no one is going to catch them. As researcher Philip G. Zimbardo states:

You minimize social responsibility,” he explained. “Nobody knows who you are, so therefore you are not individually liable. There’s also a group effect when all of you are masked. It provides a fear in other people because they can’t see you, and you lose your humanity.

I reasoned that, since people are fairly anonymous on the Internet – I mean, who uses their real name for chat forums? – we all unleash some of our inner nasty.

And everyone used to talk about the web being an anonymous place – the Wild West. You can learn anything, do anything, be anybody. No one had to know what you were up to. It was amazing.

However, we no longer think of the web as anonymous. In fact, it is largely the opposite: the web is a gigantic big-government deployed tracking device. It is unstoppable, unrelenting, and everywhere. It knows where you are now, where you were yesterday, what you bought, what you wrote (or spoke!) to whom, and even does a fair job predicting what you will want and say and where you will be tomorrow.

Google Tracking me

That’s a tad unsettling. But we’ve digested it wholly because, hey, who doesn’t want a super computer in their pocket that can recommend the best carnitas taco within 1.3 miles of my current location!

The web has indeed transformed from this great big anonymous landscape into the all-knowing eye. That does not have to be bad, I guess? But knowing people and bureaucracy, it probably is.

Ongoing, the movement afoot is to opt out of the web – not cut the cord but to use only non-traceable, encrypted devices and software packages. It is doable, but difficult and cumbersome. And even that does not defeat the growing list of municipal “real world” cameras tracking vehicle license plates and pedestrian traffic. Sure, there is this wild jacket. But what about a warm sunny day? Is there photo bomb lotion so we can go without the coat?

Not everyone minds being tracked. But many will continue to stand firm in the effort against vastly well-funded resources – both private and federal – that bend towards knowing, hoarding, and tracking information.

All that data – about each of us on the granular level and meta level. Here we are, countless numbers of us without a plan or clue about who we are or what we want out of life. A little ironic.

The web is no longer wild and free. It is no longer anonymous, despite whatever efforts we deploy.

Oh, and you know, people writing about Hitler in the comment sections are still jerks. Now we just know who they are in real life.

Huts and Micro/Tiny Houses in the 23rd Century

There was this earthquake on 25 April 2015, and disaster struck. 7,000 people were killed and 450,000 displaced.

A buddy of mine was showing me photographs from a tiny village that was leveled. He explained that the residents can rebuild their stone huts by hand, but need money to get the sheet metal roofs. Metal roofing materials have to be brought in from a large city nearby.

Another buddy of mine is running a program here in Pittsburgh, PA, USA, that trains ex cons in the building trade and gets them working alongside certified union craftsmen, paid, and busy. They are construct micro housing, sometimes called “tiny houses”. Huge demand — buyers are already lined up out the door.

It didn’t escape me that our descendants may look back on our era in Western culture as a time of indulgence. A time when we were so wealthy and idle that we could build trendy tiny homes as fashionable expressions of taste and preference (towards meaningful outcomes, certainly, but still these are self-elected). A time when we have the technology and labor force and industry to construct tiny modular homes that will be energy efficient and weatherized and comfortable.

A time when our fellow humans toil in the aftermath of a horrendous earthquake to rebuild by hand, stone by stone, their rock huts while awaiting on the generosity of strangers to help them buy the corrugated tin roofing from the next town over.

I know it would be a logistical nightmare to ship tiny houses to Nepal. I know their are geographic and political and cultural reasons why it just is not practical for the tiny houses we build in Pittsburgh to house earthquake victims in Nepal. And I know it is expensive, to boot.

But I also know how history reads —and I’ve spent my fair share of time being a Monday Morning Quarterback. Just as that phrase will lose meaning, so too will all of our excuses for why and how much and this and that. What our descendants will stand witness to as they read about our position in history is that there was a time when we had the technology, and we had the ability, and we had the leisure, and we had the money, and in Pittsburgh, we had the tiny houses.

But in Nepal, after a horrendous earthquake, they still had tiny stone huts that had to be rebuilt, brick by brick.

rock pile and tent

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Open Badges and Online Learning

We are (slowly) moving away from the traditional “sheepskin” diploma model of four years of formal education and towards a new, portable and self-driven model. This will be a robust, rapidly changing environment filled with apprenticeships and ad-hoc teams of makers and managers, fueled by countless networking opportunities. Phrases like mash up, meetup, startup, MOOC, codefest, hack-a-thon, and gamification of learning, will rule the lexicon.

Open Badges are a foundational piece – they will allow learners to proclaim their skills from a validated third party source. And they will allow educators to supplement and legitimize their curriculum.

This change is driven by the demands of the economy and lack of flexibility on the parts of universities. Big businesses no longer offer lifetime employment. Legally binding pension plans are no longer legally binding – we are seeing them changed decades into the agreements, leaving pensioners on the hook for lost income. Universities – and the insurmountable debts they blithely hand students – are not offering a competitive edge in the cost ratio analysis. The four-year diploma is simply the current “badge” the system looks to for verification of credentials.

But what if the economy started looking to other sources of verification, sources that cost less or have a more immediate rate of return, are more current in leading technologies or practices, or meet the hyper-local demands of a person’s geographic needs? What if individuals forsook the four-year process and started their own ventures – and they themselves hired others from this new verification pool?

Learning is no longer the big ticket outcome students seek from universities. Jobs are – and by extension, financial stability. The current system is failing graduates on the latter, and the former is slowly but overtly being provided by the innovation economy. That economy offers a much more nimble and risk-taking set of parameters, but it is highly available to those with the aptitude and flexibility to participate. There is already uptake by those on the cutting edge.

Those cutting edge learners see the (financial) value of online digital badging systems and self-directed, learn-as-you-go systems. It is a practical system for today’s innovators. The middle masses, those who understandably “play it safe”, will gradually catch on and potentially move to this new method.

Meanwhile, lingering issues – such as the burden of investment into residence halls and first-tier sports complexes – will continue to be a drag on the universities, and may become particularly poignant if enrollment begins to fall. They may enter into a downward spiral caused by too much expansion (fueled by an effort to attract more, higher-quality students). Their prices will rise, and services will shrink.

I want all learners to have the walled garden experience of a formalized, long term academic education. But the costs no longer make that practical. If a strong competing validation system does emerge that meets the needs of the new economy, such as digital Open Badges, it will be the crack in the dam that precipitates a wholesale movement away from that formalized model. Universities will persist, but perhaps as more esoteric institutions of thinking, or perhaps as research incubators for spin off companies.

How the Web Will Be Different

There is so much to think about. On a surface level, it’s important to acknowledge that the web — the way we access it, how we use it, and how we build for it — will all be dramatically different in five or ten years than what we have today. If you are looking, you can see fissures in the large platforms many people use now for websites, caused somewhat by our “grab-and-go” mentality, but also by some remarkable user-experience and design work on the part of this constantly churning ecosystem of new, web startup ventures.

And another piece is that people are moving away from the web being an archive or personal history, maybe in recognition that we all change as we grow older, or maybe because the web is becoming cluttered with outdated, incorrect information without any linear map to show the progression of knowledge. But for whatever reason folks are moving in the direction of a “forgetful web”. We will soon want the web to erase things we’ve posted a year, or five, or ten years ago, instead of keeping it online and searchable for the rest of our lives. Remember the heated political argument you engaged in with an old college classmate on Facebook during the second Bush campaign? Time for that to dissapear.

These big Content Management Systems that are popular today are going to be breaking apart for lack of use or consumer appetite, I think, or maybe spun out into smaller component divisions. Not everyone needs a large assembly line-CMS behind their two page website, potentially slowing down load time. In their place, we will probably see a host of tightly integrated, internet-based services that users can pull together for ad-hoc information displays.

I am not using the word “website” because that term won’t be as relevant in five or ten years. For example, the metaphor of a web “page” will transfer over for a little while, but I doubt it will linger as more and more people are viewing web information that is output through contact lenses, their car dashboard, 3-D printers, or virtual holo displays. A whole website? What’s that?

Instead, folks will be walking around with static Internet Protocol addresses being broadcast from tiny transmitters embedded in their necks or from a bracelet or other wearable. Information they capture from their phones or Google-glass-like product, and post or broadcast … will be indexed in a short-lived solid state cache memory system and viewable from that address, temporarily. Only items flagged permanent will be directed to an Amazon AWS server or similar for long-term storage. That will be their “website”. The DNS system will still function as it does today to continue providing memorable URLs.

These ad-hoc displays are already being put together by folks. They just are not as mobile-driven yet as they will become. Think about how some people today integrate Instagram and Twitter and Tumblr and AdSense and Giphy and Facebook Messenger and Soundcloud into a single platform accessible via a unique URL. All of these independent information services are coming together in a structure that the user demands; at any point, they can be pulled apart and disappear, be replaced, or left idle. Sure, it’s a web page, but … is it? Isn’t it already more than the traditional web page that we’ve come to know?

What that means for those in this front-end web development industry with me is that, well, the writing is on the wall. We either need to become skilled in handling the Application Protocol Interfaces (the APIs) that undergrid the ability of these tiny services to all seamlessly and (visually) beautifully communicate with each other, or we will be regulated to a footnoted “bump” in the Bureau of Labor & Statistics annual jobs report. Maybe some will move on to become managers of the new crop of web workers; of course the designers’ jobs will always be safe; but the front-end development folks, well, that work is not what I would lean on for a solid retirement plan.

Then there’s the layers of abstraction to think about. What used to be HTML became CSS, which became SASS or LESS, and at each stage there have emerged countless systems and frameworks meant to handle rapid prototyping and development, and each system has a learning curve and peculiar dependencies or supporting components. And that’s just one of the fundamental pieces — we can’t forget JavaScript and its offspring. With each new iteration of these pieces, we have seemed to move away from the core languages — each step is doing the job of the initial language cleaner, quicker, (messier?) faster … mostly in a good way. As we get deeper into each new layer, we are further removed from the original languages of the web.

Today, it is possible for a front-end developer to custom-build a website without really touching HTML, CSS, or JavaScript. They are working in ‘children’ of those languages like the aforementioned SASS or JQuery, and letting technology do the dirty work. I think it is really remarkable. In the same way that today’s TV repair service probably does not know a thing about a vacuum tube, the future web worker likely won’t know a thing about HTML or JavaScript or PHP. And that lack of trade knowledge will be totally appropriate.

That’s a really fun way to think about the future of the web — how we will broadcast to it and implications for the day-to-day laborers behind it.

There are some other, less fun but basic questions hanging in the air around the future of the web.

  • How are our cities preparing physical infrastructure to be ready to harness the future web? Are we relying on the likes of Comcast, the “world’s most hated company” to do it for us? While some cities are spinning up municipal broadband, most cities are not.
  • How are we preparing our human capital? Is the current public school curriculum sufficient to build the next generation of web technologists? Is there balance between the consumption of these new technology devices and an understanding in how they are put together and made, the hardware and programming behind them? Or is that all just magic?
  • How are we preparing to absorb the future impact of disasters relating to a massive “offline” event or the all-too-common wide scale cyber information theft from regional information hubs (hospitals, universities, city government offices, etc)?

Already, we may have popularized the concept of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s “Internet of Things” running across the web — an entire host of dumb devices connected through the web, performing routine, maybe singular tasks on our behalf. We seem comfortable with the idea of being completely enmeshed within this “web” of information and services wrapped all around us.

The future of the web is going to be an amazing place. And it is coming faster than some have expected. My hope is that we stay informed through it all, more than simply being consumers with a “Tide Detergent” Amazon button that we press when we need more product. I hope we understand how all these transactions are occurring across the various protocols and wifi channels and banking interactions — from the moment we press or click or snap, to the moment the box is dropped off by the robot drone carrier on our front porch.

Why? Because it matters that we control the technology instead of being controlled by it. It isn’t magic. It’s real and while it is wonderful to feel awe from it, we need to also own it and keep it tamed.

University Education in the Near Future

I keep having this conversation. It’s on my mind because I have kids, surely. But a lot of people think about it. It’s university education. Specifically, paying for it.

My wife and I talk about whether we should pay for our kids to go to school or let them pay for it themselves. I am talking extremes – we both agree that we will help out with books or a couple bucks here and there, maybe even a used car. We are talking about is will we be writing the check to cover tuition term-to-term, or handing our darlings over to school-loan nirvana, to let them pay for it themselves.

Instead of entrenching my flag deeper and deeper, it occurred to me that it might not matter which side of the debate I come down on, or if we ever come to mutual consensus. Because it might be that the system itself is so flawed and damaged that it simply won’t be around in fifteen years, at least not in the same format it is today.

Presently, I am beginning to agree with this notion. It does not make sense to me anymore to have a student pay $1,000-$3,000 per class, especially for the exploratory “100-level” classes. I don’t mean only the “fun” elective classes (looking at you, beer-making and volleyball). I also mean those classes that provide a window into careers that only provide a professional track if the student continues on through the Ph.D. level – these are your Psychology 101 and early Sociology courses. Yes, they are mighty valuable. But maybe not valuable in the way we are treating a university education these days.

There was a time when higher learning was undertaken for the sake of learning itself. There was discipline, rigor, and study. At some point, college became a place where an individual could go to “find themselves”. Lots of study, experimenting, testing the waters. Next, it was about getting an entrance into the white collar job market, strictly. This was business coursework and fraternities, which was dubbed “building your network”. Then it was all about extending adolescence. Enter the dorm-room TV with the requisite PS3 or XBox. Classes were actually getting in the way by this point.

And now it is a mixed up value proposition of trying to balance all of the above fads with the real-world weight of the titanic price tag that comes with the package. Why is school so expensive? Well, for my money, I’d answer that schools spent too much listening to what students and parents wanted (building more and bigger and wider) instead of administrators giving them what they should have known was what was best for education. And that is investing in the ranks of your educators and their equipment. It is not building a newer, bigger gymnasium fitness-wellness-climbing-wall palace. But that isn’t what I am writing about.

In that context, why would I ever want my kid (or would I want me) to pay $3,000 (plus 3-12% interest?) for Sociology 101, plus another $250 for a textbook? (Note: seriously, I love sociology. I think it is a worthy pursuit). What sort of self-feeding system have we created here? If my kid wants to learn sociology, well, for $3,000 there sure should be a better way to give them a 100-level introduction to it than two hours of “boring” weekly lectures with 600 other students and a few hundred pages of isolated reading and writing over a sixteen week span. That isn’t an education; that is a hoop.

If President Obama gets his way, community colleges will be free to qualified students. Think about the damage that would do to the hundreds of regional colleges with less than 3,000-student enrollments. These tend to be pricey options for the students while the administration is operating on razor thin margins.

What if, suddenly, some of those students could get their core requirements out of the way somewhere else for free? Would enrollment drop? Or would it actually make room for more students – widening the overall enrollment pool? I think enrollment will drop, and that small regional schools will have to scramble to rethink who they are, what service they offer, and in the end, radically hack away at pieces of their identity. In the end, they will become specialized, two-year schools that identify with a trade (engineering, pre-med, education, etc). This may happen over the next 25-30 years.

Yes, I am leaping. But I need to – the alternative option of looking at at $40,000 — or $200,000 tuition bill for my kids, well, it isn’t really an option. I need to believe that some major change will at least begin in the coming decade to radically alter how our kids pay for school, and also why they go.