I’m working on a novel and said novel hinges on three separate themes: the virtues of the Third Reich, alternative education and the ubiquitous technology of the future. I’m at different stages in the exploration and advancement of these themes, so I thought it would be useful for me—and interesting for you—to see my initial speculations regarding each one laid out. Let’s begin.
THE VIRTUES OF THE THIRD REICH
They come in six general categories. First, the Nazis played an exquisite political game. After a failed putsch in the late 1920s, Hitler and co. realised that power had to be taken by legal means, not by force. Thus began a long and systematic pursuit of authority. Underestimation of their movement was cultivated, chaos was invited and exploited, ideals went un-compromised, and only once power was attained was the destruction of constitutional freedom and democracy carried out.
Second, the Nazis were masterful manipulators of cultural perception. Globally and locally they persuaded their audiences to buy into whatever myths were most necessary. They had their finger on the pulse of the society they sought to sit atop of. Sure, they weren’t the only ones to manufacture the zeitgeist of Germany in the 1930s, but they were the only only ones who realised precisely how it could be utilised for their own ends.
Third, the persecution of “inferior races”, whilst abominable, was undertaken with typical German efficiency. What other nation in history has made such a good attempt at carrying out the genocide of entire races of peoples?
Fourth, the Germans were remarkable military practitioners. They were the first truly modern force. If one disregards the crisis of leadership which got them chucked out of North Africa, Russia and Western Europe in the later years, it’s possible to appreciate how they sensed weakness and struck for it with unerring accuracy and undeniable timing.
Fifth, and this is an amalgamation of the previous two, the mechanisms of the Third Reich allowed for some impressive logistical feats. The mobilisation of forces on many fronts, the supplying of these forces, the rapid build up of military capacity in the pre-war years—from this we can learn.
Finally, the Third Reich had their own Great Man. Adolf Hitler—the man, the myth, the legend. The unrelenting Fuhrer. The indefatigable servant of his people and their will. The consummate actor, playing the role of statesman, warrior and everyman, who loves his country and wishes for nothing more than to return to his home in the mountainside. A man hearing the call of Fate and answering with reluctance, yet ready to die for the cause if necessary.
Traditional educational institutions are losing their halos, and the question, “Is college/university worth it?” is on many people’s lips, both young and old. On one hand, institutions like Harvard and Yale cling to their ability to manufacture prestige—as someone I can’t recall put it, these places don’t make winners, they pick them. At the opposite end of the spectrum, most institutions are failing in their primary mission—preparing students for their careers and for life outside the bubble of higher education. Whether it’s down to under-funding, the commoditisation of credentials, diminishing real world relevance of the curricula propagated, or the encouragement for students to hyper-specialise, the reality is that the supply of universities that can adequately prepare students to add value in the real world is not meeting demand.
Massively open online courses aren’t the answer—the certifications they offer often aren’t seen to be worth the bits or atoms they’re displayed on, and besides, most people find the unsupported, self-paced nature of them an unsuitable replacement for education as they know it.
A fall back to the traditional apprenticeship model is tempting, but it is not operable at scale—way too many students, not enough masters—and it is unclear if this model can even be grafted out of the trades and onto newer disciplines. Nassim Taleb’s concept of the Uberisation of education is a similar model, but I believe it runs into the same problems of the apprenticeship model when deployed at scale.
The most promising development I’ve seen in the field of educational institutions is exemplified by Lambda School. From their site:
“Lambda School trains people to be software engineers at no up-front cost.
Instead of paying tuition, students can agree to pay a percentage of their income after they’re employed, and only if they’re making more than $50k per year.
If you don’t find a job, or don’t reach that level of income, you’ll never pay a cent.”
Why is this remarkable? Typical educational institutions promise future employment and makes efforts towards this end. But it is not guaranteed. They’ll still take your money if you don’t get a job—or, more accurately, you’ll still be indebted even if you don’t get the expected return on investment. The genius of what Lambda School does is in the alignment of incentives. If they don’t do what they promise, they don’t get paid. They have thoroughly shackled education to the job market, and the ability to maintain the strength of these shackles will be the life or death of them.
But what about the other direction? Harvards and Yales hint at prestigious employment as well as other intangible benefits, like “elite” networks. A school like Lambda maps education to employment more explicitly and with more force. Creators of MOOCs tout their acceptability to employers, claiming their courses are worthy certificates of experience or expertise. The consistent theme is seeing education as preparation for a long and fruitful career. What if it wasn’t?
What if instead of tying education to employment, we decouple it? What if the schools we attended were schools of thought, that taught their pupils to think for themselves, to adapt, to reinvent, to be comfortable forging new paths into new or old domains. What if the primary mission of schools was to give a wide base of understanding in diverse disciplines? What if shaping for employment was something that non-educational institutions assumed responsibility for? This already happens at the lowest levels—we provide children a base in numeracy, literacy and social settings. Why not take it all the way through to the late-teens and early twenties, giving individuals a good grounding in practical and abstract domains?
UBIQUITOUS TECH OF THE FUTURE
When I saw the promos for the most recent Apple Watch and saw you could send texts from it, I got excited. Perhaps a phoneless future was imminent? Nope. Turns out that the Apple Watch is still very much a peripheral of the iPhone. My dreams are not reality yet. But this did provoke some observations. One of which is that in a few generations we’ll be past phones.
Right now, we have phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. In the future I think these distinctions will blur and a new triad will become the norm. The functions will remain mostly the same, but the form of the devices and services which we perform them on/with will change. Everyone will have a small device, a large device, access to the cloud and be able to use a variety of peripherals that enable input and output.
The small device might be akin to the phone or tablet as we know it, allowing us to communicate, create, augment everyday experience and enhance our efficiency and effectiveness. Or it could get smaller—perhaps a wrist-bound device is donned by most and perhaps it will be stripped back, performing only the most essential functions?
The large device will still be a large-ish square rectangle, but the OS will be a hybrid of current mobile and desktop OS’s. We’re already seeing this—the iPad Pro has a Smart Keyboard which snaps on and off. How long before a full service MacOS is usable on an iPad like device?
That is the ubiquitous tech of the future that I am imagining.
The above speculations are both early and rough, but they are strong in my mind. Still, I welcome feedback and challenges on all of them. What do you think were the virtues of the Third Reich? How do you see educational institutions evolving? What does the future of technology look like for the masses? Let me know.