Wider Horizons

Thomas FreyThe selling and consumption of almost every commodity on Earth has changed dramatically in the last decade. Why, asks futurist Thomas Frey, should education be any different?

August 1965: if you were a teenager that summer, especially if you were a girl, you might well have spent time lining up outside your local record store, one sweaty palm clutching $5, waiting your turn to buy Help!, the latest album from The Beatles. (If you need a definition of record, album or Beatles, please skip this story.)

After securing said album, you would likely have sped home, torn off the cellophane wrapper, gently opened your prize and laid the vinyl treasure on a 33-45-78-rpm record player and swooned as John Lennon explained to you – only you – that he required “somebody, not just anybody.”

After listening to Help! for, say, 1,000 times and memorizing the lyrics, chord changes and who sang which song, all the while gazing lovingly at the Fab Four on the 12-inch-square cover, you likely filed it under B and alerted anyone who cared about your eternal happiness that Rubber Soul would make a great Christmas gift upon its release that December.

By now, of course, your original Help!, like most of the albums from your youth, has been repurchased as a compact disc and, if you’re keeping up with technology, later created as an

MP3; 45 years later, the music remains the same, but the way it’s bought, played and stored has unbelievably, and perhaps irrevocably, altered. Chances are, before you, too, “leave the building,” you’ll have yet another technical configuration to unravel. Or at least be able to ask your granddaughter to unravel it for you.

Now, step back to August 1965 again and change the commodity. You’re not buying music this time; you’re buying education. You’ve waited weeks for the acceptance letter from your school of choice in hopes that it’s willing to sell you that which you want to purchase, and now here you are in line again, inching closer to the registrar’s office to sign up for the prescribed courses in your program, high school transcript clutched in sweaty palm and hoping you have $5 left over to buy the latest Beatles album.

The line-ups might no longer exist, thanks to online registration, but the general concept of obtaining an education from a single post-secondary institution hasn’t changed much since Newton was a student at Cambridge.

That, says futurist Thomas Frey, is about to change. Invited to Lethbridge College in April to present his ideas at a forum for faculty and staff, Frey furrowed a few brows with his predictions on how students will one day soon access postsecondary education. Already, universities such as Excelsior College in the United States are packaging courses from a variety of sources and offering them online.

Excelsior believes “what you know is more important than where or how you learned it.” If that sounds a direct challenge to academic gold standards such as Harvard, it likely is, and that philosophy will make higher education more accessible as it gains acceptance.

The standard model for purchasing and obtaining education is one of what Frey terms “Roman numerals.” The Romans, experts at conquest and organization, were lousy mathematicians thanks to a clunky numbering system, used mainly today to designate Super Bowl games rather than for any type of serious calculation.

While Arabic numbering flourished, Roman numerals became yesterday’s news. Frey uses the term to label commodities or systems which today are at best archaic and at worst stifle progress. He lists fax machines, cheques, invasive surgery, “drill-and-fill” dentistry, keyboards, wires, power cords and cable hook-up among the dead and dying.

“Ink and paper, too, is in decline,” he noted, brandishing a Kindle as evidence. “Within 10 years, the majority of libraries will hold no books. But they will have much greater access.”

That’s good news for students forced to pay king’s ransoms for texts they will one day be able to download onto electronic book readers at a fraction of the cost, saving money, natural resources and waste.

“Our image of the future determines our actions today,” Frey says. “The future creates the present.”

That tenet, he says, has been borne out from Leonardo DaVinci to George Lucas.

Society escaped the Me Decade of the 1970s, only to stumble into the present iDecade.

“We live in an age of hyper-individuality,” says Frey. “We have 100 million products to choose from and we believe there is something out there to solve everything.”

We’ve moved from “atoms to electrons,” a universe where waiting 30 seconds for a microwave to warm a muffin is intolerable. We are addicted to instant communication as we are to instant gratification.

“Digital and virtual is much faster than physical,” says Frey. “We text images now; one day we may text smells, tastes and textures. We are diminishing the value of proximity.”

The virtues of working from home, with its inherent flexibility, are being replaced, says Frey, with the concept of co-working spaces in which like-minded people, not necessarily from the same company or industry, gather daily, thus avoiding isolation and cabin fever.

“We are creating the ‘empire of one,’ in which a single person holds increasing influence over their work world,” says Frey. “Everything can be outsourced. In the future, there will be no human-resources departments.”

Frey envisions “business colonies” in which workers come together for single projects, dispersing when they’re completed.

A global population shift has already begun, he says, which will leave Africa as the only continent with positive growth. In the rest of the world, populations will continue to drop as we approach 2050, and growth might even slip into negative numbers.

The divorce rate will climb, Frey suggests, as couples disconnect raising children from the concept of marriage. Women will no longer be financially dependent on spouses and their numbers will rise in the workforce, as will those of older employees.

And what types of jobs will be in vogue in, say, 20 years? Only partly tongue in cheek, Frey lists off his envisioned careers: body-part maker, organ agent, memory therapist, time broker, waste-data manager, space-tourism guide, urban agriculturist, landfill miner, plant psychologist, avatar designer and augmented-reality architect.

The rise of the middle-class, he says, will create the need for on-demand transport, a futuristic taxi service. Without an alternative to today’s automotive extravagance by 2030, 2.5 billion vehicles will have created a shortage of roads, parking and fuel for an item used three to four per cent of the day.

“We will transition from a product-based society to an experience-based one,” says Frey. “The future: it’s important to us because it’s where our kids will live and we want it to be a better place.”

Wider Horizons
Lethbridge College
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