In response to a prompt recently, I had to try and do a bit of forecasting about higher education.
I’ve spent too much time teaching about the history of futurism and prediction to find that a comfortable invitation. No matter how sophisticated you think you are as a forecaster, you’re mostly limited to extrapolation from existing trends. Visible trends can either be dealt with incrementally as they continue along their course of probable development. Or they can’t be, and their projected endpoint is so dire or dangerous that it calls for dramatic action now. Yet it’s exceptionally difficult to get anyone to act dramatically now based on a forecast where only the worst-case scenario justifies that kind of action, and for good reason. Not merely because such forecasts are not infrequently wrong, but because acting correctly means understanding not just what is likely to happen but why it is happening. Not to mention that the underlying causes of future developments have to be something that the forecasting actors can meaningfully affect or adapt to.
Occasionally an imaginative person can see some novel or unexpected development lying in wait, but that also doesn’t do much good, because it usually requires that person’s distinctive cast of mind to appreciate the forecast. If it’s hard to trust the collective wisdom of methodologically precise trendspotters, it’s harder still to trust some outlying eccentric. Even if you did choose to put all your money down on a single number and wait for the wheel to spin, being the first to adapt to some forthcoming reality might not do you any good. Spending fifty years in the fallout shelter eating beans out of a can might mean that you’re one of the few to live through the apocalypse, but by that time, your shelter is probably obsolete and you’ve traded fifty years of the good life for ten more years of beans in the darkness.
All of that said, it still seems important to at least try to think about the future. The cautionary example that I think is most pertinent for academics is newspaper and magazine journalism. Fifteen years ago, some of the developments that have cast the future of print journalism as we have known it into doubt were already quite visible. But few people in the industry took those developments seriously as a threat, even if they were otherwise interested in online media and digital culture.
Would it have made any difference if print journalists in 1995 had sat down for an industry-wide summit, accurately forecast what online media would look like in 2010, understood the implications for their own business model, and had tried to plan accordingly? What could they have done that they did not do?
This question takes on even sharper edges when you consider what exactly did the most damage to the business model of print journalism: not the movement of content to online venues, but the movement of advertising (classified ads in particular when it comes to newspapers). Then muddy the waters even more and ask how much of what has happened is about a shift in generational attitudes, reading practices, and conceptions of information.
If a perfectly accurate forecast of every major development between 1995 and 2010 had been delivered to that summit, there are some actions which might have shifted the future onto a more favorable track. But some of those would have required that the people sitting around the table then sacrifice their own involvement in print journalism in favor of other writers, editors and executives with different skills and perspectives, since one of the shortcomings of print journalism has been the reliance of many print journalists on closed-shop, old-media conceptions of what makes for good and bad content. Generally there are not many takers when you ask people to save the long-term future of their industry by sacrificing their own immediate future, even if twenty years down the road they’ll be unemployed anyway. Maybe some professionals in the industry could have made the leap to a new paradigm, if they were absolutely convinced that it was coming.
Could print journalists and publishers have found a way to steal a march on Google, Facebook, and most especially Craigslist in 1995 if they knew they were on the horizon, and in a way that would have saved their revenue streams? In advance of the technology and social practices that have made all of those companies successful? Despite the dot-com crash that was still to come?
Certainly journalists could have done something to avoid the self-inflicted wounds that have cost them so much collective credibility and so hampered their claims to be indispensable guardians of the public interest. No Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, perhaps. The line of willing dupes and accomplices of the Bush Administration’s manipulations of evidence and information after 9/11 would have been much shorter. But considering that so many Americans were in that line as well, maybe that would simply have made journalists targets of a different kind of populist ire, with no change in their overall reputation.
So suppose some equally on-target warnings were dropped in front of academics today? That our revenue sources would change or dry up, that our status in the wider society would transform or diminish, that the way we worked or thought was out of touch in some novel way that would have novel consequences? What would we do? What could we do?