"...many of the seemingly routine aspects of
city administration, like police, housing construction, and school
administration, need not be routines, but opportunities for community life,
thereby revitalizing the people directly concerned."
-- Richard Sennett --
In my e-mail there is a request from a professor Jan Heiden
of the vCity Internet University to engage in a realtime multilogue with his
students at such-and-such a time about the development of virtual reality
technologies. I think he teaches a history course, but maybe it's political
science, or possibly electrical engineering -- anyway, what I find fascinating
about the whole thing is that Dr. Heiden is in Holland, I am in the U.S., the
students are scattered all over the world from China to Chile, and the "class"
would take place by means of a combination of HTML and VRML-based
internetworking as well as telephone and video-conferencing. Very funky.
One of the most significant curiosities about the vCity is
how often it mocks the real world. Sometimes, existence in the vCity is not
about the future, it becomes the future. Electronic services
advance to the point that they compete with, and expose the flaws in, their
real world counterparts.
At the dawn of the 21st century, the modern university was
indistinguishable from any other corporate entity. It owned a variety of assets
including real estate and facilities; engaged in basic and applied research in
many different areas; employed, insured, and provided health care benefits for
thousands of people; prepared (and overran) annual budgets; provided a plethora
of services in return for money; and generally competed against members of its
own kind in the marketplace for revenue and profit. Many universities had their
own security forces, their own computer networks, and their own form of
currency. Universities formed associations, paid lobbyists, and obtained fat
government grants and contracts. In sum, they were players in the global
However, what a university actually achieved was a
little vague; every now and then you would see a real world university
struggling to decide if it had a fundamental purpose other than
self-preservation. But then again, the same could be said of many transnational
conglomerates that asked from time to time: "what business are we in?"
The general assumption was that a university was in the
business of educating people, advancing knowledge, and possibly both
simultaneously. It was a strange industry in the sense that people could
actually educate themselves and advance knowledge without need of an elaborate
infrastructure. Nevertheless society seemed to prefer individuals who glistened
with the lustre of having associated with an institution. There was a lot of
brand name loyalty in that market. A university could charge stiff tuition fees
-- sometimes three times that of its competitors, for essentially the same
product -- simply because it had a reputation for excellence or prestige (or
Unfortunately for universities, free-lance professorship
and self-education made a comeback via the Web. Some of the smarter real world
universities anticipated an erosion of their revenue base and tried to
re-invent themselves. But the really ugly surprise even for these enlightened
administrators was the discovery that a university was not a place, but a
concept, which anyone could create overnight.
In uptown, to the west of Confluencia on the other
side of the three rivers, there is an area called the vCity Internet University
or "VCIU" for short. Many people think that VCIU is a simmcorp, but it is not.
It is actually registered in the U.S. state of Delaware as Virtual City
Internet University, Incorporated. It is a for-profit corporation whose stock
is held principally by its employees -- the administrators, managers,
engineers, and teachers. University employees receive their salaries in the
form of convertible stock, but they also receive cash commissions for bringing
In this system, the highest paid professionals are actually
the teachers (content & analysis providers), since it is they who bring in
the most revenue from the mass base of students (end-users). The heart and soul
of the VCIU as a means for the expression and communication of knowledge is its
computer network hardware and software. In a nutshell, the VCIU network links
those who wish to teach with those who wish to learn.
The fundamental principle of the education business is that
students (end-users) must cover the costs of teachers (content providers). By
charging for library research or education on a per-use basis, VCIU encouraged
efficiency throughout the entire system. First of all, students didn't goof off
while learning, because it was their money that was being seamlessly
transferred to the university. Secondly, teachers didn't waste time or effort
with irrelevancies, because they quickly lost their student base. Within a
matter of days, in fact. Professors quickly learned how to attract large swarms
of end-users, either by providing quality content, insightful analysis, or
outright amusement (like clowns at a circus).
The buying and selling of education-minutes is effected by
sophisticated VCIU software, the details of which will remain unpublished for
obvious reasons. Basically, information content is encrypted and keyed by
password. Therefore, it is not only impossible to "eavesdrop" on a discussion
group or read material provided by a teacher, but also impossible to reproduce
that information (unless the teacher codes it for reproducibility in either
electronic or hard-copy form). As far as VCIU knows, no one -- including the
National Security Agency -- has ever cracked its security. But it allows
students to try. For a fee, of course. And if anyone does figure out this
ultimate hack, why then, s/he would easily be able to get a job with the
university as a security expert. Or with any terrorist and/or government
organization in the world.
The efficiency of the VCIU was staggering to education
professionals. Back in '98, the average cost of education-minutes was
approximately $0.30/minute, figured by dividing total tuition costs by credit
hours, not including incidental costs and lost opportunity income. The average
billable cost of an education-minute channeled through VCIU today is
It was like accidentally knocking down a hornet's nest. I
remember very well how university administrators came flying at us from every
direction, more juiced than a bunch of Yellow Jackets nursing from a can of
Jolt cola. Threatened to sue our corporation for something or other -- I don't
think their lawyers were ever very clear about what, certainly ours were
mystified -- and ended up blacklisting anyone who participated in VCIU. They
twisted the arms of corporations not to treat a VCIU degree as a legitimate
degree and waged a vicious disinformation campaign against the value of
electronically-based research and education. There was even a lobbying effort
on Capitol Hill to get Congress to apply taxes to universities which "did not
own physical facilities".
It was all a magnificent failure, indeed, a textbook case
of how to foment a PR disaster. The more advertising and lobbying money the
universities threw at the problem, the worse it got. All they were doing was
purchasing huge gobs of negative publicity.
Undergraduate students began to seriously weigh their needs
-- those who were not treating college life as a four-year jaunt paid for by
their parents, that is -- and decided that it was cheaper to buy a PC and get
an Internet connection and join a tele-university.
Foreign governments quickly latched on to the notion that
it was far better to have their students learn from people in the
developed nations than to have their best brains drained to the
developed nations. Indeed, by opening up a virtual university, they could keep
home-grown professors, too. Not a year after VCIU opened, Singapore opened its
own virtual university, followed quickly by the vUniversity of Cape Town in
Professors broke ranks in droves. Not the tenured ones, of
course, but the vast numbers of graduate students and journeyman scholars and
assistant professors who suddenly realized that they did not have to move to
some obscure part of the globe in order to earn a living wage. Even more
revolutionary: the idea that wages were roughly commensurate with teaching
ability and/or actual knowledge.
The coup de grace, however, was delivered by corporate
personnel managers and those Human Resources professionals who set hiring
policies and staffing requirements for most of the transnational corporations
around the world. The university system, after all, had been created for their
The idea that a university degree symbolized a standardized
or minimal level of knowledge was important in order to save time for managers
wishing to hire for a particular position. It allowed them to sort and sift
resumes initially without talking to the applicants. The same applied to
the exam-and-grading system, which had been established neither by students nor
teachers, but by managers and administrators who had sought a cheap and
effective way of determining relative value.
The dirty secret of the university system, however, was
that it had functionally broken down in many parts of the world. By the late
1990s it was painfully obvious that many students graduating universities,
so-called "freshouts", did not in fact have a significant grasp of their
professed areas of expertise; furthermore, with the onslaught of massive grade
inflation, the process used to determine relative value had become useless.
More and more, managers were forced to initially examine individual applicants
and talk with them, even though the resumes hinted at some level of competence.
What the hiring managers discovered was that people who had acquired knowledge
electronically were no more or less ignorant than people who had learned via a
The net result was that corporations accepted the validity
of a VCIU degree and judged its value as roughly commensurate with that of a
"real" university degree. Since the virtual university concept offered so many
other advantages, and since a VCIU education was roughly 70% cheaper to acquire
than its real-world counterpart, there was no end to the amount of market share
that virtual universities might grab. The early participants in VCIU made small
fortunes selling their VCIU stock at 100 times its original value.
A year or so ago, I received a letter from an old friend of
mine, formerly a professor at Benjamin Thompson University, now a Dean. His new
title is Director for Special Policy or something like that. BTU was one of the
first "real" universities to realize the terrible dilemma that any business
faces when it is saddled with an aging infrastructure and eroding market share.
They had been working on some document called "University 21" or "Reinventing
the University", I can't remember which, and kept re-issuing the damn thing for
about five years. They were very good at saying where they wanted to go, but
somehow, they were having trouble getting there. So he wrote me a letter asking
for my advice and response to the annual draft of the policy document.
Here is what I wrote in e-reply:
Look, the first and most important rule of university
for the future is: if it is possible to provide an
by telecommunication, then *don't* build an infrastructure
that same service. After all, buildings, facilities and
cost a ton of money to construct, maintain, and
Secondly, in cases where infrastructure must be created,
adjust your fees to assure that primary users are primary
Subsidize only at the behest of wealthy patrons or the
facilities that prove to be unprofitable should be sold off
to a competitor.
What kinds of facilities remain? Largely, any activity that
For example, to teach someone how to play tennis,
one needs a tennis instructional facility where both
and student can work up a sweat.
There's only so much one can do with bioengineered
telepresence, after all.
HMD/MSE technology can only go so far, at least for now.
Here, the university must assess whether this is an
that it wants to build, knowing that it will be competing
with private courts and lanes.
The university must adjust its expectations to the specifics
of the marketplace.
If it does build and operate a facility, the life-cycle
costs must be passed on to the users.
But obviously, fees cannot be significantly higher than
by other corporations unless the university adds value in
So adding value is the key. The real world university of the
future will probably
become very much a social club offering state-of-the-art
sports and entertainment practice facilities and
It will also become a fun place to go to engage in all kinds
of social events
that are not necessarily mainstream.
(if they were, they would likely be offered by someone else
In fact, the only thing that will provide the university of
with the high margin revenue it needs to survive and
is that its employees will be creative and willing to take
in stretching the boundaries of art, music, theater,
performance & exhibitions,
etcetera. New services and ideas, by definition, have no
established pricing structure -- so when something
sufficiently mainstream and competition arises,
that will be your signal to sell off a facility to private
interests and try something new.
The real world university will also provide some
that abet research and development in medicine, science and
After all, despite some incredible gains in modeling
there are still some things that need to be tested
if for no other reason than to assure engineers that
modeling assumptions about such things as airflow or
tensile cohesion are really true.
Some systems, such as biological organisms, are so
that modeling them is well-nigh impossible, and again,
a physical laboratory is often necessary to test new methods
He e-wrote back:
But wouldn't that put us squarely in competition
with many corporations involved in R&D in industries
including pharmaceuticals, robotics, construction, et
To which I e-replied:
Yes. So what you should do is be willing to assume
high risk ventures in return for guaranteed funding from
a number of other corporations.
That way, highly competitive corporations in a
avoid nasty surprises and yet lower their risk and cost
for any specific R & D adventure.
The university would get the benefit of steady revenue
and anchor tenants for their facility,
which may or may not prove profitable
in either the short or long-term.
Later, he e-wrote me another note thanking me for my
comments, which he said
he had passed on to others for study. Then he added:
I think you have some valid points here, but
one thing that does
worry me is the potential for lack of access. Not everyone
access to a computer or to the Internet, especially in the
nations of the world. What's your solution to that one?
Not one to fail to get the last word, I responded:
No education system is perfect. If a society expects to
the fruits of a decentralized educational process that
removes problems of bureaucracy, racism, sexism, religious
and all forms of discrimination based on physical appearance
it will also have to deal with the roots of poverty.
Because obviously you can't expect someone to telelearn
if he or she can't afford a computer and a modem,
or whatever particular technical form of access exists.
With all due respect to you and my alma mater, however, your
borders on hypocrisy. It's a lot easier to take out a
to purchase a PC, a cable modem and Internet access than it
to take out a four-year loan to matriculate at BTU, that's
I mean, what gives you the idea that access to education
was universal under the old system?