What if Goodreads, Amazon and Facebook went out of business?

Hard to imagine, but what if these behemoths of data went belly up? Sure, a few banks might fail, a few cities go bankrupt, perhaps even a few countries; a whole bunch of employees would be made redundant, and that vast treasure trove of data would be on the auction block.

It’s the data that I am concerned about. Between these three entities, all the information on me has been stored, mined, and exploited. They ran a fairly good privacy model while in business, but what if the new buyers at the auction are from Russia or China or North Korea or some Middle Eastern kingdom anxious to acquire western assets at bargain basement prices? I remember the time Yahoo was hacked and e-mails went from “me” to the whole world selling them Viagra, Costume Jewellery and asking them to click on links to spurious spyware. Luckily Yahoo, under its new management, decided to take sterner measures to protect its members’ privacy, two years later.

Data is the new gold, like oil once was. Knowledge is power. And we plebes gave up our power willingly in order to have free publicity and extend our reach to places we could never reach on our own for free, which in the past would have required lots of money for publicists and traditional media advertizing. If these guys go bust,
Armageddon will be nigh.

So what can we do? Here are a few options:
(a) Pray! That always works.
(b) Hope that western governments will declare these companies NATO assets in case of a stock meltdown, or declare them “Banks” (after all, they bank data) and add them to the “too big to fail” category of the economy.
(c) Buy shares in these companies, especially if and when their stock price tanks, in the hope of a rebound and the making of millionaires of all of us.
(d) Delete our data and go back to those days when no-one knew who or where the heck we were, and no-one really cared (we wonder if anyone really cares today, despite us keeping them posted of our every life event, meal, and bowel movement).
(e) Shrug and carry on as before, comforted by the premise that whoever gets their hands on our data will continue to make us famous or infamous, and both of these states will attract attention in these attention-deficit times.
(f) Build tighter spam filters for the barrage of nuisance e-mail that is bound to head our way.
(g) Get ready to lose all your friends and followers in social media when they have been inundated by spurious email from YOU.

Ah, well – it’s a good problem to ponder, or a scary nightmare to wake up from.

Is it time for the Un-University?

I was watching a news program in which a young man was proposing the “Un•University.” I wondered whether it was another buzzword like the Un•Mortgage, a.k.a. a different mousetrap, but then I slowly realized that this young man was making a lot of sense, with a few caveats.

The Un•University works on the premise that there is so much knowledge available in cyberspace these days that all one needs is the right band of mentors to network with and expand one’s education along the right channels. Seems simple enough, as long as these mentors are findable and willing to contribute for free. But then I have seen writers collectives emerge the same way; when traditional channels became restrictive and irrelevant, collectives went on to publish breakthrough literature.

The traditional university has a few things that do not sit well with us. First off, it takes in students at an age when they really do not know what the heck they want to do with the rest of their lives. Five years later perhaps, and a few changes to their major, and they may stumble on their chosen path—an expensive way to find one’s soul.  I have often heard the term “universities teach you a lifestyle, colleges teach you to get a job,” in other words, you still have to learn a skill or a trade, after university, if you want to earn a living; or get an employer to train you when they are busy outsourcing employees and jobs. And universities charge a heck of a lot of money for the experience; so much that our governments (most governments) cannot afford to cover this cost anymore. And universities dislike standardizing their programs between each other for reasons of differentiation, reputation and brand – all necessary to create distinction and command a premium price. A situation that is ripe for the introduction of disruptive innovation, the start of one of those dreaded S curves. Hence the Un•University.

However, the university has a few things going for it too. Years of conditioning have convinced us that one has to have a tertiary education to be taken seriously and act responsibly; that non•university educated people are blue collar and the university•educated ones have collars starched in white; that without a tertiary education one is a black•and•white kind of a guy, not used to accommodating new ideas or seeing a different perspective or practicing critical thinking and problem solving. One is supposed to gain depth during those university years (along with a copious appetite for alcohol, partying and sex). That the one who is disciplined enough to have attended all those lectures and written those dreadfully boring exams, while flowering adulthood could have led to many other gratifying pursuits, is a testament to the quality of the university graduate, they say.  These are perceptually difficult hurdles for the Un•University to overcome.

I can’t take a side here, as many of the next generation in my family are university•educated and are passionately defensive of their status, and I would like to continue to be invited to family gatherings in future. But I would like to support the Un•University concept, given that it has been my experience, more by accident than by design.  I wonder how much more depth, critical thinking, problem solving and all those other university –educated attributes would accrete to the young person who leaves the nest and goes out on his own to earn a living, preferably far away from home, and who carves out a couple of hours a day towards furthering his education by forming the discipline of reading and discussing all there is out in the fields of literature, economics, politics, mathematics, science and technology? Not for a year or two but for the rest of her life. This lifelong learner would be far more valuable than the guy who slapped a degree behind his name and never learned a thing afterwards.

I’d really like to support the Un•University concept under these conditions, but who would listen? And more importantly, who would hire a Un•University graduate?